Finding the right balance between border security and humanitarian concerns has been challenging American immigration policymakers for the longest time. How does a nation protect its borders while also living up to its ideals of compassion? The immigration attorneys at Graham Adair say there are no easy answers, but progress requires open and thoughtful discussion.
The events of 9/11 saw the focus of U.S. immigration policy shift decidedly toward security. Substantial funding increases for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as the construction of hundreds of miles of border fences led to a massive buildup of enforcement resources along the southern border. Simultaneously, asylum and refugee programs that were once seen as sacrosanct came under increasing scrutiny.
The results of this buildup have been mixed. Apprehensions of those attempting to cross the border illegally did fall dramatically in the years following 9/11. However, in recent years that number has crept back up again. Meanwhile, the journey through Mexico has become exponentially more dangerous for migrants. Desperate to avoid detection, many entrust their lives to unscrupulous human traffickers linked to drug cartels, often with tragic results.
From a security standpoint, experts debate whether this enforcement buildup has made the country significantly safer from terrorist threats. After all, none of the 9/11 hijackers entered the US illegally over the Mexican border. Nonetheless, in the post 9/11 era an event like the Mariel boatlift of 1980, in which 125,000 Cubans fled to Florida by sea, would be politically impossible. The country’s appetite for large-scale legal migration has waned.
Pressures Driving Migration Continue
But if security concerns have reduced opportunities to enter legally, the forces driving migration have only intensified. Poverty, violence, corruption, and the effects of climate change have displaced record numbers around the world. The need for humanitarian relief has arguably never been higher. This places policymakers in a quandary: how to balance humanitarian ideals with border security and public safety?
President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of mass deportations and a border wall, rejecting calls for compassion outright. President Joe Biden has aimed to strike a more humane tone, but even he has disappointed immigrant advocates at times, most notably in his continuation of Title 42 expulsions at the border. This Trump-era policy blocked asylum seekers from entering the country on dubious public health grounds.
Possible Policy Solutions
Finding an immigration policy that most Americans can agree strikes the right balance will not be easy. But here are several ideas that policymakers could explore. They could increase opportunities for legal, managed migration. Providing expanded channels for temporary guest worker visas could reduce pressures at the border. Expanding the annual refugee resettlement cap, which was slashed to a record low under Trump, would also allow more to enter legally.
Deportations could be prioritized based on criminal history rather than solely immigration violations. Limited enforcement resources could then focus on those who truly pose a public safety threat rather than otherwise law-abiding families.
Providing appointed counsel for immigrant children and asylum seekers would ensure that fair legal proceedings uphold American values. It would also be sensible to allow pathways to legal status for migrant farmworkers, and longtime undocumented residents with otherwise clean records. Offering hope reduces incentives for illegal entry.
Americans need an honest debate on these issues, avoiding partisan extremes on both sides. A fair and just system that upholds both compassion and the rule of law is possible, but it will require nuance and compromise from all who wish to shape immigration policy going forward. With open minds and good faith, progress can be made.