No wall is big enough to keep out reality

Have you ever pondered the United States coastline from the sea? I had occasion to do so last week while out on Catalina Island for a few days with my cousins. Over morning coffee, with news of “The Wall” fresh in our minds, our conversation turned to the obvious conundrum this spectacular view presented:

If a wall should ever be built—impervious, impregnable, unscalable—what’s to prevent desperate refugees from attempting to approach American shores by boat?

The Pacific coast of the United States is 1,293 miles long (actually, the shoreline wends its way for nearly 8,000 miles if you measure every cove and peninsula). Surely, we are not going to wall off beach access, boat launches, and views of the Pacific from Imperial Beach, California, to Cape Flattery, Washington. I’m having trouble believing that building a wall is the right thing to do.

The Problem

In his State of the Union Address, President Trump urged “Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration….” He mentioned “large, organized caravans,” told us Mexican cities are dropping truckloads and busloads of illegal immigrants at places along our “lawless” and “very dangerous” southern border where there is little protection. And he went on to say that “working-class Americans…pay the price for mass illegal migration: reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools [and] hospitals…crime, and a depleted social safety net.”

Trump spoke of human traffickers crossing the border “to sell [young girls and women] into prostitution and modern-day slavery; “lethal drugs that cross our border….meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl” and kill “tens of thousands of innocent Americans;” MS-13 gang members that are removed only to “keep streaming right back in.” He stated that “countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.” (No mention of the culpability of those on this side of the border who are purchasing the trafficking victims and the drugs. Plus, according to the Washington Post, “almost all research shows legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population.” )

The People

Let’s look at the people who are seeking refuge in the United States. Caravans. Truckloads. Busloads. Why are they coming?

Sofia Martinez, writing in The Atlantic, last June cited some reasons: “The killing of a loved one. An attempt at gang recruitment. A rape. Harassment by a police officer. A death threat over an outstanding extortion payment….Families arriving at the border from countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala leave behind a myriad of stories, many of them connected to their homelands’ plague of armed violence. Martinez explains that the current population of refugees as what it used to be—young men seeking work so they can send money home to their. Instead, we are seeing “many more families, newborns, children, and pregnant women escaping life-or-death situations as much as poverty.”

They are fleeing the gang violence that has grown exponentially over the past ten to fifteen year. Massive expansion of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18) gangs can be traced to U.S. “deportations of tens of thousands of convicted criminals in the early 2000s.” Those criminals have set up shop in their home countries.

For example, at this point, 65,000 active gang members in El Salvador are dominating the lives of more than half a million people. In both urban and rural areas they set up roadblocks and impose their own law; they target children as young as 12 for recruitment, with girls often sexually abused and exploited. Families are sometimes forced to abandon their homes to gang members who will use them as a casas de locos (“mad houses”). Officials say they are “fighting a war they cannot win.” Yet as they strive to get the upper hand, “sometimes people are more scared of the police than the gangs.”

It’s difficult to imagine a daily life so horrific: “caught in the armed confrontations caused by gangs’ turf wars…operations by security forces to combat them,” plus “the usual harassment…trying to recruit their children or extracting weekly extortion payments.”

“If I stay here, I will die,” a Honduran woman told Martinez. Those contemplating the dangerous trip north said that while the prospect of being apprehended at the U.S. border is frightening, “there is no scarier place” than home.

The Dilemma

What’s to be done? The blatant rule breakers are easy to deal with. Those caught crossing the border to look for work, reunite with family members, or smuggle contraband are simply arrested and deported. It’s the asylum seekers who present the conundrum. In 2008 fewer than 5,000 of those crossing the border asked for asylum. Ten years later, that number was 97,000. Immigration rights advocates believe the United States should make room for those who are fleeing gangs, political upheavals or environmental devastation. President Trump argues that those who file for refugee status are only pretending to be afraid. Thus the new rules: family detention, denial of asylum for victims of gangs or domestic violence, and the requirement that those who seek asylum must do so at a designated port of entry.

As of November 2018, there were over 790,000 pending immigration cases (average wait time for a hearing, 721 days) with the backlog growing because funding for immigration judges has failed to keep pace with the massive increase in case load.

The current crisis can be traced to 2014, during the Obama administration, when more and more unaccompanied minors and families crossed the southern border. The flow has increased steadily since then. But instead of hiring more judges and administrators both Obama and Trump focused on enforcement.

How the system works: An asylum seeker comes face to face with an immigration officer and expresses fear of returning home. A trained official then interviews the person to determine whether this is a “credible fear.” (In 89% of cases, the answer is yes.) From there the asylum seeker is assigned a date to plea his or her case before a judge in immigration court, which requires a high burden of proof. In 2018 only 17% of these pleas were granted. Against these odds, many fail to show up for their hearings, and that’s why immigration hard-liners want refugees to be detained while awaiting their court dates. (Trump calls the alternative “catch and release.”)

But detaining asylum seekers is expensive—$319 per person per day, on average. Plus, according to ACLU lawsuits, prolonged detention violates the U.N. Refugee Convention (as well as a 2009 ICE directive).

The Right Thing to Do

An expert at the Migration Policy Institute suggests one way to discourage those whose claims for asylum are likely to be unsuccessful would be to publicize a clear definition of who qualifies for asylum, what factors will be considered in hearings, and what evidence will be required. But the key to eliminating the backlog—and the need for detention would be to hire more immigration officials—and more judges.

Sure this will be expensive, but so is building a wall. And deploying troops. The most recent information I could find was on The headline, dated February 7, 2019, reads “Cost of US troops being deployed to Mexico border could reach $1bn, Trump administration admits.” Surely, troops are not the answer.

The Director of refugee protection at Human Rights First has said that any lasting solution to the migrant crisis must address the fundamental problems of poverty, violence, and instability in the countries from which people are fleeing. This would require long-term investment in effective foreign aid programs. But we are an impatient people. Americans like to react to crises by taking bold action, not by determining root causes and investing in long-term solutions.

It’s distressing to realize how much of the violence and political chaos in the Northern Triangle can be traced to US intervention over the past century—sabotaging free elections, supporting coups, funding and fomenting civil wars. (All that is a topic for another day.)

Meanwhile, over the past decade and more, U.S. free trade policies have undermined the sustainability of small farms while making it impossible for domestic producers to compete.

It’s easier, perhaps, to build a wall, deploy troops, toss refugees into detention centers, and deny pleas for asylum than it is to identify and help assuage the problems that are causing people to flee their homes. It may be easier. But is it right?