INTERVIEW: Tired, Poor and Huddled New Yorkers
By Reuvain Borchardt
Daniel Di Martino discusses immigration policy amid the recent ending of Title 42, the COVID-era rule that allowed the federal government to expel or block the entry of people coming to the United States.
Di Martino is a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he focuses on high-skill immigration policy, and he is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at Columbia University.
Di Martino immigrated from Venezuela to the United States in 2016. He has written for and made appearances on national media outlets, speaking against socialism and advocating a more restrictive immigration policy. He has received fellowships from the Institute for Humane Studies and the Job Creators Network, and he founded the Dissident Project, through which people who fled authoritarian and socialist regimes speak at high schools.
Where are we and how did we get here?
We’re in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people attempt to cross the southern border, because we have a system where you can enter the United States and you have a right to at least get an asylum claim heard if you are not obviously lying. And the bar is very low.
Because we have a huge backlog in the courts for reviewing these cases, some people may wait as long as 10 years until their asylum case is heard. By then, obviously, they’re going to have lived and worked for years in the United States — so we’re basically giving away free work visas of about five to 10 years to anybody who shows up at the border. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are willing to take that even if that means making a false asylum claim. That’s the incentive that draws people in: we don’t have a system that is able to process asylum claims quickly.
How has the situation at the border changed since Title 42 ended on May 11?
The border situation actually hasn’t changed much; it has not been the disaster that a lot of people predicted. The reason is that Title 42 expulsions are actually much weaker than the regular deportations that happened before 2020, and will be happening again now that Title 42 is over.
Under Title 42, if you come here illegally, Border Patrol just quickly returns you to Mexico — there’s no legal consequence, nothing on your record, and you can’t be imprisoned for repeated border crossings. So you simply go around to another section of the border and you cross again, which is what hundreds of thousands of people did — some people returned two or three or four times. So that actually gives more work to Border Patrol and, ultimately, those migrants still get in. But now, under what’s called Title 8 — the regular immigration process — if you get an expedited removal order and then you cross again, you can be prosecuted and sent to jail. So there’s much less incentive to cross illegally now, even if the expulsion is not as immediate as it was under Title 42.
But some people who are coming now and claiming asylum don’t have hearings scheduled for years, as you indicated. How is that a disincentive for them to come?
There are different ways to process them under Title 8. You could be let in with a notice to appear in court, you could be paroled, or you could be deported. True, under Title 42 there’s always an expulsion, but even under Title 8 you could get “expedited removal,” which supposedly the administration is claiming they’re doing now. They are authorized to do that to immigrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti because of a deal Biden made, wherein there will be more legal pathways for migrants from those countries, but if you come from those countries illegally you will be sent on an expedited basis right back to Mexico. The incentive to come here illegally is much less if you’re from those countries. But if you are from other countries, you can still come, get your asylum case heard, and stay for years until it’s heard.
Are the migrants who wish to claim asylum generally going to ports of entry, or just crossing the border and when they’re caught say they are seeking asylum?
About a third of the border crossings are in ports of entry and about two thirds are those who cross illegally between ports of entry. But there are no U.S. ports of entry in other countries where you can try to claim asylum. So, all these migrants have to come to our southern border.
The administration intends to open regional processing centers — U.S. government offices in Guatemala, Colombia, and other places that would allow immigrants to walk in and try to claim asylum there and wait for their cases to be heard from there and also be given legal options to go to Canada, Spain, and other places.
I’m not sure how much that would work. I’m not optimistic about that. I think the whole problem here is very easy to solve, and it requires congressional action: We need more immigration judges, so that the decisions are quick. If you were able to have a decision within a week, you can detain somebody at the border for a week as they wait. And if they are admitted because their asylum case is legitimate, which is maybe 10% or 20% of those who come, then they they’re allowed into the United States under asylum. And if they’re not, they’re immediately deported or never allowed back in.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), in fiscal year 2021, 37% of asylum cases were granted, up from 29% from 2020.
Currently it could be even higher, given that a bigger share of the border crossings are being made now by Venezuelans and Cubans, who are more likely to be granted asylum, as opposed to Mexicans, who are less likely.
Is someone who crosses illegally any less likely to be granted asylum than someone who goes to a port of entry?
No. What matters for asylum is that you have a credible fear of returning to your country, by proving past persecution, or a credible fear of future persecution. The manner in which you entered the United States does not have any bearing in the decision on your asylum application.
The people who do come across the border, do they generally try to get away and sneak in illegally and if they get caught claim asylum, or do they just walk right up to the Border Patrol and claim asylum without even trying to get away?
Most people don’t try to sneak in anymore. Twenty years ago, when most of the immigrant flow was Mexican, they tried to sneak in because there was a presumption that they were not going to get asylum, and they were immediately sent back to Mexico because it was the country next door. But because now it’s mostly not Mexicans, so they are more hopeful of getting asylum, and most of those crossing don’t want to go through the dangerous track of the desert or the Rio Grande, it’s easier for them, once they cross, to just give themselves up to the Border Patrol.
And that way they don’t have to pay smugglers?
Most of them still pay the smugglers if they don’t go to the ports of entry. Because, unfortunately, the cartels control the Mexican side of many of the border sectors, and they just won’t let you in if you don’t pay them. They don’t even let you cross the river. You’re not really paying them to smuggle you across; you’re paying them simply for the right to go across “their area” to the United States. Just like paying protection to the Mafia for the right to own a store in their neighborhood.
Many people were warning that the end of Title 42 would mean disaster at the border. But would it have been different than whatever was going on before COVID hit in 2020, when Title 42 was first implemented?
Right. In theory we are actually in the exact same policy we were in during 2019 before COVID. But the difference now is two factors: Firstly, a big share of the new entries at the southern border after COVID were Venezuelans and Cubans. Previously, Venezuelans would come to the United States by plane with tourist visas, overstay the visas and request asylum; they were one of the groups that got the most asylum cases approved. Cubans used to show up by boat. Now, they can’t show up by boat; they’d be returned. So a lot of Cubans and Venezuelans go to Mexico, and then they cross the border there. And all of that has inflated the numbers post-COVID.
Secondly, the migrants feel they will be more welcome under the Biden administration than they were under Trump. That has a huge effect.
You mentioned that we need more immigration judges.
Yes, we have fewer than 500 immigration judges. I’ve seen court dates for the 2030s.
How many more would have to be hired to ensure quick asylum hearings? It would seem that we’d need to hire thousands more.
We need to at least double or triple the number of immigration judges. That would drastically improve the situation.
Another solution — which the administration is trying to implement now — they sent about 500 USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] employees to the southern border. They’re not usually the ones at the border; it’s usually just the Border Patrol. But they want to have people who screen for those who have a credible fear of returning to their country, right there at the border — you actually have to talk with a U.S. immigration officer and tell them what happened to you. If you say something that is not political or religious persecution, you’re immediately deported.
It sounds like you have a pretty strict view of controls on grants of asylum, and are against a permissive, open immigration policy.
I believe that if you’re going to show up at the border, the only way you should be allowed in without having a valid visa is by having a legitimate asylum claim. I do believe that we need to expand high-skilled, legal immigration, for physicians, engineers, and such.
What do you say to the humanitarian argument, that even if someone is not being persecuted, but is living in a poor country where it’s difficult to raise their family, and they just want to make a better life for themselves, America should allow them in?
I completely understand that feeling; you know, I’m from Venezuela myself. But the reality is that if you simply allowed everybody to come here, you would have a lot of people who will become burdens on the state, which is exactly what’s happening now under the current immigration policy — which is not even as permissive as they would want.
El Paso is full of homeless migrants right now. In New York City, the shelters are full, and half of them are migrants. Imagine if we had millions of people enter the United States from extremely poor countries with little to no education, no English language: What would they do? Who would pay for them? They would become burdensome on society.
And would they be better off than in their home countries? Probably. But would Americans be better off? No. The U.S. would be worse off; it will become a poorer country, a less attractive country. And it’s not something that we should do.
What if we went back to a system like we had in the pre-quota days of Ellis Island — where in order to come here, you basically had to prove that you weren’t going to be a ward of the state, you get a sponsor, you have a health check, and everybody who passes those requirements gets in?
The cost of transportation is much lower now than it used to be. So for a European immigrant — which were 90% of those who came back then, because they were the ones who were able to afford it — to buy tickets on a ship to go to the U.S. was a huge expense; you would have to save for months or years to buy that ticket. Nowadays, the price of getting to the United States is much lower a share of people’s incomes. So if you want to implement today the system that we had at Ellis Island, I think the equivalent would be, yes, you need a sponsor, whether a family member or employer; and you pass health and security checks; but then you would have to pay a fee of tens of thousands of dollars to come. That would be more similar to the system we had with Ellis Island. And that would guarantee that the people who come would not be burdens on society, because most people around the world don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to pay.
In the Ellis Island days we didn’t have the welfare state we have today. What if we went to a system like we had then, as we said, whereby we pretty much allow in everyone who has a sponsor, but we also say that no immigrants can get any sort of government social programs for, say, 10 years?
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 — passed by Republicans and signed by Bill Clinton — forbids anyone here illegally from accessing any federal benefits, and those who come legally can’t access them until after five years; you have to be a green-card holder.
But the federal government can’t prohibit the states from providing their own benefits. And Democratic states are opening up those benefits.
I think the best way is to simply prevent people who are likely to become burdens from coming. And if you wanted to have a system that has that equivalent filter as Ellis Island, you would need to have a very high fee for entry.
Texas has been sending migrants to liberal places, particularly sanctuary cities, including New York. How are these cities reacting to receiving all these migrants now?
I think New York City, unfortunately, reacted the worst.
Illegal immigration has been happening for decades. In the ’90s, we had record illegal immigration, with California having the most illegal immigrants — but you were not seeing in California this crisis that you’re seeing in New York City now. You only see it in New York, because New York has this really bad policy of a right to shelter: Anybody can show up in New York City and get free housing. And, of course, migrants are not only showing up because they’re being sent here, but they’re also starting to come of their own will. They’re very happy to come here, because there’s nowhere else in the U.S. that will give them free housing and free food, and other things on top of that.
Additionally, because they are admitted, and it takes time and money to apply for asylum, and until they get a work permit, which can take 180 days, they can’t work legally, they also are dependent on the state. [Days after our interview, New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams called on the Biden administration to allow expedited work permits. -Ed.]And so we have created the perfect storm by allowing a lot of people in whom we shouldn’t have allowed, and then by attracting them through welfare. We went from the system of Ellis Island, where we had a high barrier of entry because of the transportation cost and a magnet of jobs, to a system where there’s a very low barrier of entry and a magnet of welfare.
What do you think of the job Mayor Adams has done on this issue?
I don’t think he has done a good job. I don’t think it’s fair for New Yorkers to have to pay for free housing for a lot of people who simply show up. That’s never the way it’s been with immigration into this country or this city. New York City has a history of welcoming millions of people through the more than two centuries of history of this nation — but never has that been a burden on the taxpayer, because we’ve never had to pay for it. But that’s what’s happening now.
I’ve interviewed some of these migrants in the hotels that are being turned into shelters. They’re not having a great experience: they don’t have kitchens, they’re not able to make their own food, so they have to buy food or be fed by the government. So more cost to us.
The government has security on those hotels, and that’s another cost to us. And they’re having terrible experiences in the educational system, because their schools are not up to task. One family from Colombia told me they had to pull their daughter out of public school in Manhattan, because she was being harassed by American girls.
What would you do if you were Adams and these migrant buses arrived here?
I would permanently end New York City’s right-to-shelter rule, and I would not give housing to any new migrant who shows up here.
Maybe that would lead to thousands of them instead sleeping in the streets and parks.
Sure, in the first few days after people show up, they’re going to be left homeless, but then they’re going to find a way to go somewhere else. That’s the only way to do it. Otherwise they’re going to keep coming. And we could even pay for buses for them to go elsewhere. That would be much cheaper — maybe $30 per person once, instead of $6,000 per family per month to house them in hotels.[Days after our interview, the Adams administration began taking legal action that could result in New York no longer being required to grant migrants a right to shleter -Ed.]
Democrats have accused Texas Governor Perry and Florida Governor DeSantis, both Republicans, of using migrants as political pawns by sending them to Democratic cities. What do you think of those arguments?
This has been politicized, and the migrants are indeed being used as a tool for the red states to show the Democrats: You’re sanctuary cities and, now that you have these migrants, you’re complaining. And I think it’s a very effective tool.
New Yorkers, Chicagoans, people from other places are angry over the migrant crisis. It is a political tool. But I don’t think it’s unethical. The migrants are not being forced to go somewhere or deceived, which was the whole issue when DeSantis sent a planeload of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — for which there’s a criminal investigation, by the way.
Some people, particularly on the Right, feel that even if you support permissive immigration policies, the federal government has to be in charge, and it’s not fair for the few border states to have to deal with this on their own, and that sending some migrants to Democratic cities will result in Democrats pressuring the Biden administration to say, “We do need a federal response to this rather than leaving it to the border states.” What do you think of that argument?
I think that’s exactly how it’s working. It’s a great strategy, and it’s the only thing the states can do. The states can’t deport people, and they can’t stop people at the border. So I think this busing strategy is actually much better than the other strategy they’d been doing of sending the National Guard to the border. That’s what they’ve been doing for over a decade, and it’s just a show of force for TV. National Guards can’t enforce immigration law. They can’t really do much at all.
This interview originally appeared in Hamodia Prime Magazine.
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