A Road Past the Breaking Point

By Rafael Hoffman

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

The crisis precipitated by masses of illegal border crossings has placed a mounting strain on immigration services and border towns for over two years. There is little sign of abatement.

This past August alone, U.S. Border Patrol intercepted approximately 182,000 people along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since then, numbers have dropped somewhat, but not dramatically. Most of those who crossed illegally were released into America as their cases are pending, likely not to be heard for several years.

For more than a year, the effects of this crisis were mostly felt in border states like Texas and Arizona. Yet, since the end of the summer, more migrants rapidly found their way to major cities like Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and, most heavily, New York. Presently, New York’s tally of illegal migrants from the recent surge stands at an estimated 142,000.

The Biden administration included a request for more funding for border security in its latest budget request. Yet there is skepticism it will pass Congress as requested and even less confidence the proposals would have a significant impact on the crisis.

City and state officials initially welcomed migrants, who are protected from federal immigration laws by New York’s “sanctuary city” status. A major attraction and source of cost to New York has been its “right to shelter” policy which local officials interpret as obligating the state to provide free housing to immigrants seeking asylum. As daily arrivals in New York topped 1,000, Mayor Eric Adams began sounding the alarm over the mounting expense, criticizing the Biden administration for inaction and lack of additional federal funding for the city.

As costs soared, the Mayor warned that “this issue will destroy New York City” if left unaddressed. He announced $12 billion in cuts in the city’s budget to cover migrant services, adding that more cuts would be necessary in coming annual budgets as well, altering the face of the city’s public services.

Cuts in the Mayor’s most recent budget include 13.5% less for the police department, and less funding for sanitation and pre-kindergarten classes.

In an effort to better understand the issues at hand, Hamodia spoke with Daniel DiMartino, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. While studying the present crisis, Mr. DiMartino, himself an immigrant from Venezuela, gathered information by visiting many of New York’s migrant shelters and interviewing asylum seekers.

What are the underlying causes of the unprecedented numbers of migrants that have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years?

Migrants who entered the U.S. from Mexico are lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sept. 23, in Eagle Pass, Tex. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

One reason so many people are coming to the border is because of a largely accurate perception that if you show up and claim asylum, you’ll be let in. That is largely a product of President Biden, who came to office promising to reverse Trump’s tough border polices.

A major reason why border crossings dropped under Trump was simply due to a perception of Trump’s toughness, which had a chilling effect. It was great for America because it massively decreased illegal immigration without the need for legislation or any major policy change. It was enough to have Trump saying the crazy types of things that he does about the border, and it worked.

The other major issue is that it takes so long for the U.S. government to determine an asylum case. Someone who arrives at the border today and claims asylum will wait for at least five years for their case to be heard. Now, legally, they could be detained. But what is happening now is that they are released into the country since there is not nearly enough room in detention centers and it would be unreasonable to keep them there for so long.

The consequence is that the border effectively becomes a port of entry, where you can claim asylum and then guarantee yourself at least five years of legal stay in the United States while working. And work is what most of these people seek, not asylum from persecution as they are claiming. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to come to the United States for economic opportunities, but that’s not what asylum status is for.

After the Biden Administration allowed Title 42 to expire, it implemented a new set of policies intended to stabilize the border. Why have these changes not helped the situation?

Migrants wait in the cold at a gate at the border fence after crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso, Texas, in the early hours of May 11. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

The truth is that the situation didn’t get much worse after the end of Title 42, though many predicted that it would. Title 42 was never really an effective policy. Border crossings went down when Title 42 went into force in 2020 because fewer people came during the pandemic.

What Title 42 allowed the U.S. to do was to expel people to Mexico unilaterally without hearing their asylum claim. The problem was that there was no record of the people being turned back and they would just cross back over the border until they slipped by. There was no real deterrence.

When the Biden administration let Title 42 expire, the idea was that people crossing the border would now be on record and if their petitions were rejected, they could be deported to the country they came from. The problem is that illegal immigration comes from different countries today than 20 years ago. Then, it was overwhelmingly Mexicans; and if they were sent back, Mexico accepted them. Now it’s largely from countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and some African and Asian countries, many of which do not have a diplomatic relationship with the U.S., or at least not one that allows us to send back deportees.

The administration came up with a plan which used parole authority to allow immigrants into the U.S. It has nothing to do with parole from jail time; all it meant was that if someone from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, or Cuba had a qualifying sponsor in America, they could buy a plane ticket and legally enter and work in the country for two years.

That was very attractive, since it’s much safer and cheaper than crossing the border, and they can make more money working legally. It worked, and illegal crossings from those four countries dropped. Crossings of Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans are more than 95% lower than before the policy. In fact, thanks to this policy, we now have hundreds of thousands fewer migrants coming to America and that is counting the 30,000 per month coming legally on parole, too, because they are waiting in their home countries for the chance to come legally through the program.

At the same time, the U.S. also made a deal with Mexico that America would take 30,000 people per month on this program and, in exchange, Mexico would take 30,000 deportees from these countries.

But, since all the other problems remain, there are still thousands crossing the border illegally who are from countries not covered by the parole program. We also have thousands from those countries who crossed illegally over the past two years that pushed New York and some other cities to their breaking points. 

Why did America not see a similar crisis prior to the Trump administration?

A lot of this doesn’t have to do with America, per se, but with how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world. This is mostly about economics. During the Obama administration, there was a big reduction in illegal immigration because of what the Great Recession did to the American job market. Since COVID, there have been a lot of opportunities in America, especially for low-skilled labor, and that’s what attracts migrants. It’s another proof that the present crisis is about jobs, not asylum. When we run out of jobs, many fewer people cross the border.

Even though illegal immigrants are coming through Mexico, Mexican immigration itself has been declining for 20 years. That’s because Mexico has become a much richer country and there are more jobs there. Right now, in fact, there are more Mexicans leaving America than coming in.

Twenty years ago, no one was coming from Venezuela because the economy there was good, but now it fell apart and Venezuelans are the world’s largest refugee crisis. Countries like Cuba and Colombia are also in bad shape and that is why so many migrants are coming from there.

What is the most important step the federal government could take to address the border crisis?

Migrants sit in a queue outside of the Roosevelt Hotel, which is being used by the city as temporary housing, July 31, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The real solution to ending the border crisis is that we need to get the wait time for an asylum hearing down to a couple of months. That would allow border patrol to detain everybody who arrives once they present themselves or are intercepted, which would be an effective deterrent to people coming in the first place. The thousands who are coming now without any real asylum claim wouldn’t come if they knew they would be detained and likely denied and deported.

But the only way to do that is to hire many, many more immigration judges. Right now, the U.S. has about 500. That’s nothing when you consider that there are millions of asylum applications pending. The U.S. needs several thousand to get the wait time down to where it should be. Hiring that many judges will cost a lot of money, but it would still be cheaper than what this is costing the government now.

There’s a bill currently in Congress sponsored by Texas (Republican) Senator John Coryn and Arizona (Democrat turned Independent) Krysten Sinema which would add more judges and detention centers. We need a lot more than they are calling for, but it’s a starting point. Any real solution will take action from Congress which has not been forthcoming.

Congress has not been able to take any significant action on immigration for over 20 years, but if it could, what other legislation would help the situation?

I will tell you what gets a lot of discussion in Congress but will not make the situation better: authorizing money to hire more border patrol agents. We now have four times more agents than in the 1980s, but that hasn’t helped. The thinking is that if there are more agents they can stop people at the border, but that’s a myth. The law is that once they touch American soil, they can apply for asylum.

The real answer is more judges, and detaining people while cases are pending. Short of that, what could help is for Congress or the Executive branch to raise the bar for vetting initial asylum claims. Right now, a person crosses the border, gets intercepted, says they fear persecution and are immediately in the asylum system. If the agents were required to interview them and hold their claim to a more reasonable standard, that would allow them to deport a lot of people right away. Now, these people claim they are fleeing persecution, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to produce evidence, but it would be helpful if they, at least, had to present some coherent story of why they fear persecution.

As Congressional action is unlikely in the foreseeable future, what could the administration do without legislation?

One way the administration could get funding without Congress would be to expand premium processing for legal immigrants. These are expedited services for people applying for green cards, work authorization, citizenship, and these types of things for which the government could charge a few thousand dollars. That would give the immigration agency a lot of extra funding to hire agents and move asylum cases along faster. Congress authorized the Executive branch to expand the premium option in 2020, but they haven’t done it. The benefit would be that it would self-finance and not need extra taxpayer dollars. It would also, of course, mean expedited services available for legal immigrants in highly skilled occupations and family members of U.S. citizens, so everyone wins.

Another thing the administration could do would be to target more work visas towards countries with high levels of illegal immigration. Most of these people are not coming for asylum; the data makes it clear that they are coming for work. So, if the government would make more of the temporary visas, H-2A, which is for agriculture, and H-2B, which is for construction and the like, that would help the problem.

Very few people with these types of visas overstay, so instead of crossing the border and claiming asylum, more would apply for these visas legally, stay for a few years, and then return to their home countries after they saved enough money.

What made New York’s migrant crisis so acute?

Migrants sit outside of the Roosevelt Hotel, July 31, in New York City. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

New York City blamed its migrant problems on Biden, and, for sure, it’s true that the root of the crisis is federal inaction. But the sole reason why New York faced a crisis no other major city did is because of its “right to shelter” policy.

Illegal immigration is not new to New York City. In the late 1990s, when there was a good labor market and not as much border security as now, America had a lot of illegal immigration, and hundreds of thousands were in New York. I think even before this crisis, close to 10% of New York City’s population were illegal immigrants.

But, we didn’t see homeless illegal immigrants before 2022. Most of the city’s homeless were addicts and people with mental health issues. But now, the majority of all shelter residents are immigrants, and the total shelter population has more than doubled. The reason is that New York applied its “right to shelter” policy to asylum seekers. People who claim they are refugees from persecution now get free housing. Before 2022, it was understood that this only applied to state residents. Well, guess what? People respond to incentives. That’s what attracted so many migrants to come to New York and overwhelm the city.

What changes to “right to shelter” could help New York deal with this crisis?

I don’t think that we should have right to shelter for native-born Americans either; it should be abolished. But the fact is that the city considers this a right based on an interpretation of the state constitution dating back to the 1980s. So, to just end it legally will not be easy.

As the law was being interpreted, a person who came from another state and asked for shelter would be rejected and told to go back to their state, but an asylum seeker from another country gets housing, which is ridiculous. Financially, the city realized it can’t afford to do this.

What I saw from my interviews with migrants in shelters was that, once they come, they tell friends and family about New York’s housing policy and that brings even more people here. I spoke to one lady from Venezuela who told me her initial plan was to go to Chile, which is the richest major Latin American country, but she decided to come here after her brother told her eight months ago about getting shelter in New York.

As New York eventually realized, its policy was unsustainable because new migrants kept coming. The city realized it didn’t have a choice. It was either stop housing migrants or stop paying teachers and police officers. The city asked for federal assistance, but that would only delay financial catastrophe, not avoid it.

I think the city and state realized they need to find some way to put limits on the situation. I would suggest limiting right to shelter to homeless New York residents. These migrants have a home in the country they came from and can be told that if they need shelter, they should return there. The other idea would be to say that New York will only provide shelter to migrants who have an approved asylum case, which none of those arriving do.

The way the system is set up now, these people crossing the border illegally and claiming asylum create unlimited strain on government resources. A legal immigrant who comes through the regular Refugee program gets six months of support and that’s it. These migrants are being treated much better and that’s not something the government can sustain at the present rate, nor is it fair or beneficial in the long term for anyone.

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