“The government hasn’t constructed new stretches of fencing”
Blas Nuñez-Neto regards the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border as the most pressing challenge of the current American immigration policy. The Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation discusses in an Atlantik-Brücke Transatlantic Call President Trump’s plans of building a wall, his debate with Congress, and the value of migration.
Listen to the conversation:
Interview: Robin Fehrenbach
Mr. Nuñez-Neto, the U.S.-Mexican border is roughly 2000 miles long. Can you give us an update: What distance has been newly covered with steel fences, walls or border installations since President Donald Trump took office?
The government has not constructed any kind of significant new stretches of fencing. There are some demonstration projects that it has constructed on the border to test different kinds of technology. Some of this relates to some disputes and some funding issues between the Congress and the administration and even within the administration.
Near San Diego is a site where a lot of prototypes are being shown. Is the president creating a showcase regarding the wall?
Yes. In San Diego and in a couple of other parts of the border the government has constructed some demonstration projects to test different designs. That is important because the border is 2000 miles long, and it’s not all the same. There are parts where there are floods regularly and where it’s mountainous and rugged. One design isn’t going to work everywhere.
Can you estimate how much of the distance will be covered by the time the next presidential election takes place?
That’s a pressing question for the administration. The president would like to construct up to 500 miles of walls or fencing before the election. According to news media reports that just came out there has been a little bit of a dispute internally of what the cost of that might be. The U.S. Department of Defense apparently concluded that the cost was substantially higher than what it had thought. At least to date, the Pentagon has moved very slowly in transferring the funds that the president would like shifted for construction.
The president would like to construct up to 500 miles of walls or fencing before the election.
How did President Trump succeed in materializing at least a partial financing of his plans to build a wall, although the positions in Congress between Republicans and Democrats are totally divided?
The administration was unable to get Congress to approve funding for new barriers on the border. It’s probably worth pointing out that we already have roughly 700 miles of physical barriers which include both pedestrian fencing – that is fencing that is intended to keep people from crossing – and what they call vehicle barriers. These are intended to stop vehicles from crossing illegally. There was a dispute between the administration and Congress over how much additional barriers were needed and how much they were going to cost. Congress declined to appropriate funding for that purpose. In response, the president declared a national emergency on the border.
Under U.S. law, in times of national emergencies the president has fairly broad latitude to take emergency actions, including to move funds from accounts to pay for measures that address the emergency. There have been some law suits surrounding this issue. So far Congress has not succeeded in stopping the transfer of funding, despite that it appears that the process is moving pretty slowly, probably more slowly than the administration would like.
It appears that the process is moving pretty slowly, probably more slowly than the administration would like.
The president’s plans have also resulted in the longest shutdown in U.S. history with a duration of 35 days. Regarding the understanding of such measures by the public: How much is this kind of extreme policy accepted by American citizens?
The public has unfortunately grown a little bit used to government shutdowns. They used to be extremely rare and over the last seven to eight years they have become fairly regular. It’s a symptom of a broader issue with our politics in the United States today which is characterized by polarization – an unfortunate and shortsighted one when it ends up shutting the government down in order to achieve tactical results by wielding a very blunt object.
In this last shutdown substantial parts of the government stopped running. The public gets upset when it starts to feel the effects. For example, air traffic controllers started being unable to keep up the operational speed that they normally have. Some airports had substantial delays. That’s what broke the camel’s back with regard to the shutdown.
As you already mentioned, Donald Trump also imposed a national state of emergency while speaking of a national crisis on the Southern border. How severe is the problem of drug trafficking and crimes committed by illegal immigrants?
Drug trafficking has obviously been a large historical issue across the physical land border. I am most concerned about hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. More than 90 percent of those drugs generally come through our ports of entry because they are easy to conceal. You can smuggle them in small quantities and still make a lot of money. This issue has been fueled by the opioid epidemic in the United States which is a real problem and policy challenge. But the policy solutions should focus more on what we can do to better detect and interdict these drugs at our actual ports of entry.
As far as the violence committed by migrants is concerned, there is no evidence that illegal or legal immigrants in the United States commit crimes at a higher rate than the average U.S. citizen. That is not a huge concern. There has been a dramatic surge in migration over the last year and a half from Central America to the United States and it has predominantly been fueled by families and children. There is no doubt that there is a crisis on the border but it’s more of a humanitarian crisis than any other crisis.
There is no evidence that illegal or legal immigrants in the United States commit crimes at a higher rate than the average U.S. citizen.
Is president Trump trying to build a narrative working with fear?
The president has taken some incidents committed by bad actors and has often portrayed them as if that happens all the time. I am not convinced that’s exactly the case. Our border security agencies have been stretched to their breaking point. The issue is that we have frontline law enforcement officers and border patrol agents trying to handle a humanitarian crisis: They are being overwhelmed with young children and families.
The way the system works in the United States is that our frontline border agencies before the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are the border patrols between the ports of entry and the Office of Field Operations (OFO) at the ports of entry. Their facilities are only intended to hold people for a very short amount of time. We are talking of twelve to twenty-four hours. Other parts of the government are supposed to take those populations that need to be detained and put them in detention facilities that are geared to hold people for an extended period of time. Because the rest of the system has been completely overwhelmed by this surge in migration, we’re seeing people kind of stack up at our border facilities for many days at a time. This is unsanitary, and it’s unfair to our frontline law enforcement on the border.
Our border security agencies have been stretched to their breaking point. We have frontline law enforcement officers and border patrol agents trying to handle a humanitarian crisis: They are being overwhelmed with young children and families.
Will the deals with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras that have been negotiated under high pressure by the U.S. government in 2019 really limit illegal immigration into the USA on a permanent basis?
They might. We are already seeing the numbers decrease a little bit over the last couple of months. Some of that could be seasonal. This is traditionally the time of a year when migration starts to slow down a little bit. It could also be happening due to the policies taking effect.
The bigger question is whether these policies will stand up in court. We have already seen competing rulings by different courts around this question. In the Immigration and Nationality Act, the law that governs the migration to the United States, there are provisions that would allow asylum seekers to remain in a safe third country. In some respect the administration has implemented something that looks a lot like a safe third country process without going through the actual loops you need to go through to designate a country like Mexico as safe third country. That will probably be litigated over the next year.
The administration has implemented something that looks a lot like a safe third country process without going through the actual loops you need to go through to designate a country like Mexico as safe third country.
Why are children still being separated from their parents on American soil?
There are legitimate reasons why children can sometimes be separated from their parents if their parents have committed a crime and if the government believes that the children will be endangered if they were to remain with their parents. Even in the Obama administration, when I was at CBP, we would have some incidents in which children were removed from their parents when it was deemed that their parents were criminals. The family separation policy that was put in place last year was substantially broader than that. It’s unclear to me why this is still happening.
It seems as if no long-term solution for this problem on the horizon.
I have been frustrated for years that the debate has been focused on what happens on the border, which is a symptom of the problem and not the actual challenge. The problem is that our system and our laws in the United States are antiquated and haven’t been updated in almost 40 years. We need to reform our system. We also need to recognize that these countries in Central America are essentially functioning as failed states where you have lawlessness and criminal elements including gangs like MS-13 taking over wide swaths of the country and making life basically unlivable for large parts of the population. As an American I think we need to take some responsibility for the fact that these gangs actually originated in the United States and were exported to Central America in the 1980s.
It’s sometimes very dangerous for immigrants to be sent back to the Mexican side of the border because they are exposed to robbery or violence. Could you elaborate on that?
One of the issues that doesn’t get talked about enough is that families and children are making the trip from Central America to the United States. This journey is incredibly dangerous for them and involves putting themselves in the hands of smugglers and criminals. There are horrible stories about the numbers of women who make this kind of journey that end up being violated in some way or other.
This is a deep concern, and this is probably one of the reasons why it’ll be difficult to designate Mexico as a safe third country. Mexico has taken enormous strides over the last twenty to thirty years and has become a middle-income country and has improved its security situation notwithstanding the wars with the cartels. But it’s still a pretty dangerous place, and migrants get routinely taken advantage of and have crimes committed against them.
You have extensively analyzed U.S. migration policy and worked on legislation in the Senate. What policy would you recommend to guarantee an effective immigration system with secure borders while simultaneously allowing for humane procedures in the process of seeking asylum?
Frankly speaking, it’s not rocket science. When I was working in Congress, there were multiple efforts both under the Republican president George Bush and the Democratic president Barack Obama to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s interesting that in both cases the broad contours of a possible reform were fairly similar. They generally involved accepting that we have between ten and thirteen million people living without legal status in the United States. We’ll never be able to find and remove them all. In many cases these people have been here for decades and have built lives in the United States and have U.S. citizen offspring. We need to provide these people with some avenue for having a kind of legal status whether it’s citizenship or something on a path towards citizenship.
It also involves making smart investments in our border that are targeting the problems we see on the border and not just building a wall or fences to make us feel better. It involves acknowledging that we need immigration and guest workers as Europe does as well. Our population is aging and has become accustomed to benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Without robust immigration numbers it’s going to be very difficult to continue that in the future.
We have between ten and thirteen million people living without legal status in the United States. We’ll never be able to find and remove them all.
How important will this issue be in the 2020 presidential election?
It’s clear that the administration wants to make it a primary issue during the election. What you hear from Democrats is more of a focus on economic topics and health care than immigration. That will probably be some sign of where the election is headed depending on what you hear more in the debates.
What is the Democrats’ strategy to counter the narrative and policy of the president?
Unfortunately, the Democrats are fairly divided on this issue. You have politicians on the far left who want to abolish immigration and customs enforcement. I personally think – and this is not a RAND position right now – that this is shortsighted. There are points that Democrats ought to be speaking about. One of them is that this administration has used a lot of a tough rhetoric on immigration but that it has overseen the most rapid increase in illegal immigration in quite some time. We are on track for a million apprehensions at the border this fiscal year. This would be the largest number since the early 2000s and almost three times more than what we saw in the last years of the Obama administration.
The USA has always been a country of immigration. Will it lose its status of an almost mythical land where you can fulfill your personal dreams if you just try hard enough?
I truly hope not. I myself am an immigrant from Argentina and a naturalized citizen. Yet, having not been born in the United States, I had the privilege to work as a senior advisor to multiple senators on an important committee in Congress. I have been a presidential appointee. Those are the kinds of opportunities that still exist in the United States for immigrants. Immigrants can make a difference. But immigration has also always been a polarizing debate in the United States going back hundreds of years. Both holds true.
Here you can find Blas Nuñez-Neto’s profile at the RAND Corporation.