by Berry Muhl
No, not that border. The one further north. The one around Washington, DC.
President Trump is delivering a speech on the “crisis at the border” as I type, and it’s being carried by MSLSD, among many other networks. I have the perennial misfortune of being in a position to hear these, hour after hour, even when they’re not additionally sullied by his voice.
While many of Trump’s specific claims about the “crisis” can and will be debunked in the coming hours, the basic premise is correct. The ability to fairly easily cross the southern border creates an incentive for those of ill-will to do so. Claims about specific, astronomical numbers of terrorists crossing illegally may be Trumped up, but that border is nonetheless as easy and economical a place to enter as any other. At the very least, it provides a handy way to equip terror cells that are already in place.
And yes, the border is not the predominant mode of illegal entry to this country. Here, the numbers become sketchy, since we’re dealing with estimates, and because we’re forced to consider two different, but overlapping, populations: those who are currently already here illegally, and those who are coming here illegally more or less contemporaneously with this debate. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that approximately 43.5% of all illegal immigrants “becoming illegal” this country are doing so by overstaying their visas (this is a figure about halfway between the current estimate of 42% by the Center for Migration Studies and a somewhat older 45% figure produced by Pew Research). But if you look at the larger historical picture, including illegal immigration of all kinds going back years, even generations, approximately half of the permanent illegal population can be shown to have crossed the southern border at some point (and quite a few will cross it several times over their lifetimes).
Given that the illegal population is estimated variously at between 11.1 million and 12.1 million individuals, that’s something between five and six million illegal border crossings…not counting the various, sometimes repeated, round trips.
Claims about diseases being brought here are overblown, as well, but it remains true that many parts of Central and South America are reservoirs of parasites and pathogens that have been, for the most part, eradicated in the United States. The CDC lists several major health concerns endemic to Latin American nations, including a handful (such as Chagas’ disease) which are not directly communicable between humans. Several more, including hepatitis B, syphilis, HIV, and gonorrhea, most definitely are human-transmissible, although these are also common in the United States, and so not particularly as grave a concern as “exotic” or “conquered” diseases might be. But the list of tropical diseases, mostly spread via mosquito bites, is alarming: dengue, eastern equine encephalitis, chikungunya, and Zika. Concern about these is mitigated by the fact that mosquito-borne diseases tend to have specific vectors, most of which have not yet established a foothold north of the Rio Grande. But as climate changes, and tropical biomes spread northward, this, too, will change. (It’s worth pointing out that disease vectors themselves are not necessarily reservoirs of disease. Mosquitoes require a blood meal from an infected host in order to transmit the pathogen to another individual. In the absence of infected individuals, most mosquitoes are relegated to the role of loathsome pest. So the spreading of mosquito populations northward, in and of itself, need not be a health issue.)
One figure of indisputable, immediate concern is the rate of tuberculosis infection. The CDC points out that although hopes were once high for total eradication, the rate of decline is now too slow to expect that to happen within this century (of which we still have 81 years left!) One potential factor: more than 70% of all reported cases of TB are in foreign-born individuals. While the Center does not break down figures for legal and illegal immigrants, we can infer, from the health screenings given legal immigrants, that most of this 70% occurs in illegals. (Tuberculosis is ranked #1 among health conditions being screened out.) Given that the risk of contracting TB among foreign-born individuals falls to about the national average around the ten-year mark, which can be regarded as a proxy for “permanence,” it is reasonable to assume that the subset of the population which is truly “migrant”—crossing and recrossing the border in a cycle lasting for years—is somewhat exempt from this security, and therefore probably contributes a disproportionate amount to that 70% figure.
So are illegal crossings bringing disease into this country? Almost certainly, yes, but most likely at rates much lower than the Wall rhetoric would suggest.
What about drugs and violent crime? Again, yes, these things are imported across the border (and, frequently, under it). But we’re constantly subjected to objections along the lines of “most illegal drugs come into the country in shipping containers from overseas.” While this is undoubtedly a route taken by not a few smugglers, the “most” qualifier remains in dispute. Several readily-accessible sources, including interviews of DEA and Border Patrol agents, suggest that the southern border remains remarkably porous to smuggling efforts. Some 224 tunnels beneath the border were found between 1990 and 2006. One thing the opponents seem to have right is that most intercepted drug transports take place at official points of entry (some 328 of them), with the contraband found stashed inside vehicles of every kind. This does not inform us, however, about the number of successful transports taking place elsewhere on the border.
While my preferred solution to the problem of drug crime would be to completely legalize all Schedule I drugs, I’m willing, for the time being, to grant that drug smuggling remains the kind of concern that pro-Wallers have in mind.
As for other forms of crime, yes, we know that gang members use the border to get into and out of the country illegally. The Center for Immigration Studies has found:
- Over a 10-year period (2005-2014) ICE arrested approximately 4,000 MS-13 members, leaders, and associates. This represents about 13 percent of all gang members they arrested nationwide (31,000) during that period.
- 92 percent of the MS-13 affiliated aliens arrested were illegal aliens. Of those, 16 percent had entered illegally at least twice.
- Just over half of the MS-13 affiliated aliens ICE arrested were citizens of El Salvador. Among the others, 16 percent were Hondurans, 14 percent were Mexicans, and 8 percent were Guatemalans.
- While MS-13 affiliated aliens made up 13 percent of all the arrests, they accounted for 35 percent of the murderers arrested by ICE.
While the Trump administration’s claim of “4000 terrorists” being intercepted at the border is evidently balderdash, it might be argued that they are (deliberately or otherwise) conflating MS-13 gang members with terrorists in this regard. Either way, the freedom of violent gang members to come and go at will is a concern (one which can, again, be addressed in large part by legalizing drugs, although in the case of MS-13, there seems to also be an underlying ideological or racial motivation to the violence).
Another crime-related concern is human trafficking, and this is one not to be dismissed. In addition to the coyotes (or “coyotajes”) engaged in bringing migrants to and across the border, there are prostitution and sex slavery networks, and the human toll here is almost too horrific to contemplate. (And, I’m sad to admit, legalizing drugs probably won’t eradicate sex slavery, as it doesn’t matter whether the drugs used to addict child prostitutes are legal or not.) This is a problem that has to be addressed head-on in as many ways as we can come up with, and clamping down on illegal border crossings is as good a way as any.
Even those who simply accept money from the desperate in order to get them into the States are a major problem. The criminal element comprises a wide swath of motivations, and it’s safe to say that among its members are those who simply lack compunction or compassion. Guiding people northward in order to “help” them across the border doesn’t preclude exploiting them along the way. As Trump correctly points out, an inordinate number of female (and underage!) migrants are sexually abused by their coyotes along the way. And this transit benefits the drug gangs as well; coyotes are compelled to pay tolls to them as they near the border, on the order of thousands of dollars per head.
And it’s also worth mentioning that illegal immigrants do, themselves, commit crimes during and after entry. Statistics are frequently pointed out to the effect that illegals commit crime at a rate lower than that of the general population. These figures are in dispute, not least because they can only be applied to known crimes and to those known to be in the country illegally. Convictions are rarer than crimes, and we have, at best, only estimates of the size of the illegal population here. At the same time, we know that illegals who accept payroll checks must do so via falsification of records, which amounts to felony crime. Add to those the number who obtain Social Security numbers via stolen identities, and you start to see a very different picture from that of the benign worker, toiling away quietly and under the radar. (The fact that nearly four times as many identities have been stolen in service to illegal immigration than the estimates of illegal immigrants currently living here should give you some pause with respect to accepting those estimates.)
The rabbit hole deepens when you take a close look at federal crime sentencing rates. The US Sentencing Commission releases an annual report of criminal convictions at the federal level. Breitbart, in 2014, and Sean Hannity, in 2016, both cited these reports in claiming that illegals accounted for 36.7% (in 2014) and 75% (in 2016) of federal convictions. Interestingly, PolitiFact rates this latter claim as True, and the USSC’s numbers, regarding the former, can be added up by the intrepid individual (although the overview report appears to be unavailable to the “unauthorized” user such as myself, the fiscal-year quarterly report can be found online). To drill down and examine the inevitable caveats, you can do the math yourself in the quarterly report: non-citizens committed 42% of all federal (convicted) crimes, 14.7% of all murders, and 25.6% of all drug trafficking (and 80.5% of all simple possession). Unfortunately, these figures do not segregate legal immigrants from illegals, but they do seriously undercut the “immigrants commit fewer crimes” meme. Given that illegal immigrants comprise only about 3.7% of the population, it is undeniable that they contribute a disproportionate amount of crime (even if they only engage in a fraction of the total listed under “Non-US Citizen” in the report).
PolitiFact provides some greater insights, by way of approving of Hannity’s claims: illegals were responsible, in 2016, for 18% of all drug trafficking convictions, 30% of kidnappings, 75% of drug possessions, and 5% of all murder sentences…and all of these numbers exceed the estimated portion of the illegal population, indicating that it commits these crimes at disproportionate rates. If you eliminate federal sentencing for immigration-related crime, you’re left with some 14% of all federal crimes…a percentage approximately three times as great as that of the illegal population.
Leaving all those criminal and health concerns aside, what about illegal immigration itself? Should we be concerned about those who make it here and simply attempt to live their lives? I have to part ways with some of my libertarian brethren on some issues, and this is one. I do not regard illegal immigration as harmless to society. While the “illegals are only doing the jobs Americans won’t do” argument holds some water, some of the time, the fact of the matter is that during recession, there are no jobs that Americans won’t do. More to the point, the disdain American laborers have for those agrarian positions is largely a matter of cultural conditioning, the fact that illegals have been willing to work under the table, for less than minimum wage, for generations. As illegal labor becomes less prominent a factor in our economy, and new equilibria emerge, more and more Americans will step in to fill the gaps.
And there is the subtler sociological angle regarding assimilation into our culture. In-group identification, lo these thousands of years after the advent of civilization, remains a thing. People have to regard themselves as members of a society in order to be members of that society…and they likewise have to be accepted as such by that society. Diversity is a fine thing, up to a point. Beyond that point, we cease to be “a people” and become just people. (One can compare and contrast crime and exploitation rates in culturally- and ethnically-homogeneous nations like Japan with those elsewhere in the world to see the result. This isn’t to say that a diverse society will necessarily be divided and violent, but it does imply that society takes time to absorb newcomers, and newcomers take time to assimilate.)
But wait, say the progressives and pro-open-borders libertarians—isn’t immigration a net gain for the economy? The answer, as is often the case, is “yes and no.” By and large, immigration benefits the market, but like all economic factors, this is not true of unlimited input. Every economic quantity can be expressed in terms of some optimal amount…and this optimum is never the maximum. It is uneconomical for factories to produce, indefinitely, at their maximum capacity. There is an optimal rate of production, which typically falls well short of the maximum. So it is with immigration. The greatest benefit to society can be found in the optimum level of immigration, which is well short of the actual numbers coming in during a given year. To most benefit the market, immigration policy should attempt to steer the influx toward that optimal level, perhaps by annually calculating the market’s needs and then admitting only that number of persons in a given year. However, this method is completely untenable when we cannot accurately track or control the numbers of people coming in illegally. If “C” equals the optimal level of immigrants, and “B” equals the number of legal immigrants we admit, then given “A”—the number of illegal immigrants coming in—we can straightforwardly express C as the sum of A and B. But if A remains unknown, so does B, even if we can calculate, on the basis of economic necessity, the value of C. Properly managing immigration requires that we limit the illegal influx to a manageable level.
Moreover, there is indeed a cost to taxpayers. We’re told that “illegals can’t receive welfare,” but somehow, despite bare assertion such as this, they manage to do so. I refer you again to stolen and forged identities, which can be used to claim benefits. I also refer you to the households that collect SNAP benefits for their children. Children born here, irrespective of the legality of their parents, are (legally, for the moment) citizens, and legally entitled to welfare handouts. But these handouts don’t go directly to minors; they are disbursed to their illegal parents. Add to this emergency-room hospital care, which is the preferred means of securing treatment in some quarters, even for decidedly non-emergency conditions such as the common cold. In one NIH study, involving patients at a specific hospital found that 8.6% of patients admitted were illegals, a number more than twice the portion of the illegal population. FAIR estimates the cost to American taxpayers at $100 billion annually, although this burden is typically borne at the state level. My home state of Texas is hit particularly hard.
And this cost doesn’t include the approximately $56 billion or so annually siphoned from the economy by being sent south of the border to the families of illegals currently residing here.
So there are obviously a number of valid “pro” arguments when it comes to border security, many of which can be applied to the specific question of whether to build a Wall. (At the very least, there are a number of “pro” arguments with respect to limiting the illegal influx, which can be regarded as a slightly different question from whether a Wall is necessary.) Of course there are numerous objections as well:
- The expense (although this can be mitigated by the Cruz Plan, which would save the taxpayers the total expense and provide Trump a graceful way to assert, with minimal mendacity, that Mexico did, indeed, “pay for it”).
- The ecological concerns regarding blocking animal migration routes and destroying or denying territories needed by large predators for hunting and mating behaviors.
- The fact that a Wall wouldn’t, alone, prohibit illegal border crossings, since there are ways of circumventing one.
- The problems inherent in utilizing Eminent Domain to acquire the properties the Wall would eventually occupy.
I can suggest that by “the Wall,” we need not assume a monolithic physical barrier, but rather a set of physical barriers in conjunction with other measures, such as onsite surveillance, drone surveillance, and technologies such as ground-surveillance radar, infrared sensors, and seismic detectors. Integrated and used intelligently, these could track the digging and use of tunnels while funneling overland smuggling efforts toward bottlenecks that can be directly observed. In such a way, problematic sites such as private properties and wildlife areas can be left open, while still adding difficulty and expense to border crossings elsewhere along the line.
Critics of the Wall are absolutely correct in that it would never stop 100% of illegal immigration or smuggling. But perfection is a pretty lofty goal, and we need not concern ourselves with attaining it. The point of border security isn’t to effectively block every illegal entrant, but to limit the availability and affordability of illegal border crossings. If crossing the border becomes more difficult, more time consuming, and more uneconomical, then incentives to do so will taper off, and with them, the number of crossings. Think of the Wall as a sort of “border tax,” and bear in mind that when you tax a thing, you end up with less of it in the long run.
So I can remain cautiously open-minded about the employment of a “Wall” in the sense that I defined above, provided the cost doesn’t exceed the benefit. If a physical barrier can be expected to cost taxpayers anywhere from $5 billion to $125 billion, then in an interval between much less than a year and somewhat more than a year, the Wall can pay for itself (assuming FAIR’s $100 billion figure to be accurate).
But is such a measure even needed? Critics often point out that illegal immigration has tapered off in recent years, and they’re correct. Not only is the absolute number (and population percentage) of illegals dropping over time, but the number of illegal border crossings is falling as well.
And a large part of this reduction can be traced to the 2008 recession, with a perhaps much smaller portion assignable to increased border security and the political rhetoric thereof.
But we can’t conclude that this is a permanent situation. If economic conditions drive migrant behavior, then the pendulum must swing the other way as well. And, as pointed out previously, the best way to counter economic inducement is to proffer powerful disincentives. And by tilting immigration policy in favor of those who are willing to take an ethical approach to getting (and being) here, we can actually strengthen and improve society.
So let’s put aside the media-fueled frenzy over the Wall, and over immigration, just for a moment. (Oops. I forgot to include “illegal” before “immigration” there. That’s a leftist error. My total bad.)
Let’s ask ourselves another question entirely: What if none of this matters at all? At least to the current Crisis at the Beltway? What if the border is a giant tail, and the nation a big dog, and we’re all being wagged by the Wall? What if I’ve TLDRed you over twelve pages of seeming irrelevance?
It’s probably a foregone conclusion that unless the Cruz Plan goes into effect—and its remarkable simplicity is matched only by its apparent absurdity—then Trump will not get funding for the Wall during his first term. So the “government shutdown” may or may not actually be relevant to border security. Trump isn’t as stupid as his detractors claim; he’s simply egomaniacal, closed-minded, biased, populist, and unwilling to listen to advisers. All of these things will necessarily impact his decision-making and policies, but they won’t necessarily impact his ability to discern hard truths. I can’t assume that he knows at this point that he won’t get the Wall he wants; even if he does, he will still have to keep up appearances, vis-à-vis the expectations of his base. So, after a dizzying hour or so of factual presentation, we finally get down to the opinion part of this piece:
Trump is probably using the shutdown to avoid Democratic intervention in his administration.
He has already admitted that he’s willing to keep it up for “months or years.” To that, let’s add a tidbit from one of the MSNBC programs that was TiVoed last night, and which I overheard this morning. Someone I took, in my pre-breakfast haze, to be freshman Congresswoman Elaine Luria was spoken of as being “only a shutdown Congresswoman.” By this, it was meant that she was sworn in during the shutdown, and has seen nothing but shutdown over the course of her entire career.
Given that many Dems have sought and won office on the promise of either impeaching Trump or bringing his administration under heavy oversight, I have to wonder whether the entire shit-show is an attempt on his part to forestall the turning of the Wheels of Justice, or at least the Casters of Scrutiny (or perhaps the Ball Bearings of Bipartisanship).
As regards those seeking asylum, they don’t have to reach our border in order to do so; there are stops along the way in Mexico. But by all means, yes, let’s help out as many refugees as we can, bearing in mind that poor economic conditions are themselves not real grounds for asylum. Violence, crime, persecution: yes. But we can also admit that these things tend to have causes in common with poverty and corruption, and in so doing, we can acknowledge that maybe the best thing to do for those regions has already been covered: ending the Drug War. Mexico has decriminalized drug use to a broad extent, so it cannot be blamed for the inflated demand that drives drug violence. At the same time, we have to be willing to consider the role of burdensome regulations, and in some cases, Marxist philosophy, in having created those conditions. The best thing we can do for the poor, everywhere in the world, is foster the growth of markets. And the best way to accomplish that is to apply political pressure to governments in order to compel them to strengthen and enforce property rights. This would be a very real humanitarian triumph, in addition to greatly reducing the problems associated with illegal immigration.
Ponder that as you partake of Colbert and Noah this evening. Meanwhile, the facts and figures presented during the preceding twelve pages remain relevant to the ongoing debate over illegal immigration, and that debate will persist long after the Wall has been prevented.
Unless of course it isn’t.