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President Biden’s speech on migration is a step in the right direction, but it failed to address a question he and his predecessors have avoided. How many immigrants can the United States absorb, not just this year or next, but over the coming decades?
The president’s plan identifies three components of an effective refugee policy: improved border security, deportation of illegal migrants and more humane processing of legal asylum seekers.
However, the Biden plan is based on the same incorrect assumption of past administrations, Democratic and Republican. It treats the current increase of migrants as a discrete crisis instead of seeing it as part of a chronic problem.
Migration has occurred throughout human history as populations moved from areas of scarcity to ones of plenty. The great empires of antiquity fell when they could no longer stop invading warrior nomads.
Since their foundation in the 17th century, nation-states in the West have generally been able to secure their borders and manage immigration in an orderly manner.
Refugee crises have occurred throughout the modern period, most notably after the two world wars. Until recently, however, these movements have been limited and intermittent.
In recent decades, two powerful forces have made migration increasingly difficult to manage: overpopulation and climate change, both of which will get worse for the foreseeable future.
Scientists calculate that the planet can feed 10 billion people but only if those in prosperous countries drastically reduce meat consumption.
Looked at a different way, if everyone enjoyed an American middle-class lifestyle, the planet could sustain only 2 billion people.
That calculation confronts Americans with a sobering question: How many immigrants can the United States absorb and maintain a modicum of the current standard of living for its people?
Overpopulation has contributed to environmental degradation and increased world hunger, both of which impel people to migrate.
Climate change, exacerbated by overpopulation, also drives forced migration. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 20 million people a year are forced to relocate because of rising sea levels, drought and other factors caused by global warming.
In the face of this global humanitarian problem, the U.S. continues to base immigration policy on an outdated understanding of forced migration, making a dubious distinction between those fleeing persecution, who can apply for asylum, and “economic migrants,” who cannot. People facing starvation are no less desperate than those threatened by violence.
The immediate impetus for migration can mask underlying causes. Haitians are fleeing gang violence in droves, and Haiti is grossly overpopulated. The gangs are a consequence of poverty on a tiny island with too many people and too few resources.
Forced migration is what social scientists call a “wicked problem,” a challenge with many interdependent variables for which any solution has no certain outcome, unforeseen consequences and the risk of creating additional problems.
Developing a long-term immigration strategy will be extraordinarily difficult, but we have no to try.
The first step is to deal with those already in the country. Leaving asylum seekers to fend for themselves on the streets of El Paso is no solution. Dropping them in Washington, D.C. on a frigid Christmas Eve, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did, is cruel, especially for a man who claims to govern according to “Christian” principles.
We must also secure our borders. That will require more than hiring additional Customs and Border Protection Agency personnel. The tide of forced migration must be stemmed in the countries of origin.
In 1994, the U.S. intervened in Haiti to remove Raoul Cedras, the dictator whose brutal rule was creating an influx of Haitian refugees into south Florida. It may need to do so again to restore law and order in the island nation.
The U.S. may also need to intervene in Venezuela, where political repression and an economic collapse have created a humanitarian disaster fueling migration to the United States.
The largest number of migrants, however, still come from Mexico and Central America. Mexico needs to do more to prevent Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran refugees fleeing poverty and criminal violence from crossing its southern border and heading to the United States.
Mexico also needs to stop its own citizens from illegally crossing into Arizona, California and Texas.
All the origin countries need international aid to address the problems that cause their people to flee abroad.
We must also end the double standard of focusing disproportionately on Latin American migrants while paying less attention to those from other countries, who in 2019 accounted for about one-third of people in the United States illegally.
Finally, we need to decide how many immigrants the country can absorb without compromising the standard of living of current residents, their children and grandchildren.
Unfortunately, neither political party wants to have this difficult conversation. The Republican approach, detailed in the letter Abbott handed Biden, focuses heavily on physical security, including erecting barriers and putting National Guard troops on the border.
Abbott ignores how much his state relies on the labor of immigrants — legal and illegal. Texas has approximately 1.1. million undocumented workers, almost 8 percent of its workforce.
The Democrats’ plan for “A 21st Century Immigration System” calls for allowing more asylum seekers into the country with a clear path to citizenship. It rests soundly on humanitarian principles but does not consider how many asylum seekers the country can reasonably accommodate in the coming decades.
Human rights organizations advocate for vulnerable migrants, as they should, but they offer no long-term solutions to the chronic problem of forced migration.
No politician wants to tackle a complex problem fraught with risk. It will be difficult and painful to devise an immigration strategy, but ignoring the problem will be far worse. Without such a plan we will jolt from crisis to crisis with all the attendant human suffering and acrimonious debate.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
Biden immigration policy
Illegal immigration to the United States
Northern Triangle of Central America
Politics of the United States
U.S.-Mexico border crisis