But just as the detention system has grown, so has the power of those that maintain an interest in that system’s expansion. That includes private prison contractors trying to fill beds as the incarcerated population shrinks, unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents, and the politicians whose constituents are employed in such industries and who benefit from their contributions. For these factions, every immigration problem is a nail, and the solution is always a hammer. Their advocacy has done a great deal to shape a policy conversation where the only proposals taken seriously are those to expand that very system, or to make it more punitive.
This logic is not just false; it fails its own premises. The idea that cyclical migration patterns could not be disrupted through brute force was once accepted across the political spectrum. Indeed, despite some crucial disagreements, the consensus for how to fix America’s immigration problem was once so broad that it included everyone from Karl Rove to Richard Trumka. The general idea was to create legal channels for immigrant labor, and legalize the status of those already here so that they are not exploited and do not unfairly compete against native workers. This would undercut the criminal cartels that profit from human smuggling, by shifting the incentives of their prospective clientele. People who believe they have a good chance to come to this country legally are less likely to risk their lives — or those of their children — with smugglers.
Stricter enforcement was also a part of this strategy, but over the past decade and a half, it is the only element that has actually been pursued, for both political and structural reasons. Right-wing rebellions against immigration moderates in 2006 and 2013, combined with Trump’s rise, have neutralized any political incentive for Republican legislators to support more comprehensive solutions. Contrary to the histrionics of the Ivy League “populists” seeking to follow in Trump’s footsteps, corporate America is perfectly content with the status quo, which ensures a frightened and exploitable undocumented workforce. It does not fear a militarized border or strict enforcement, from which it can profit handsomely; it fears workers backed by the protections and solidarity of organized labor.
Solving the border issue solely through punitive measures is popular because it sounds simple and effective. Instead, because it does not work, it simply creates demand for more and harsher border-security measures, which also cannot stem migration. Restrictionist politicians can then run forever on proposing solutions to a dilemma their methods cannot solve, their calls for further brutality only growing louder and more callous as the matter continues to fester. Immigration policy becomes a competition between the parties over which one can be more brutal — terrain on which the party of Trump is eager to fight.
“The border will be much more enforceable if there is a new immigration law that is up to date that makes it possible for people to come to the country legally,” Meissner told me. “Just responding through border measures is never going to be sufficient.”
And yet, the enforcement-only approach is palatable to many Americans in part because of the nature of many news stories about a crisis at the border, which amplify the arguments of immigration restrictionists that America’s militarized border enforcement is all that stands between the United States and annihilation.
The whole thing, to say the least, is worth a read. This has been a long-running massive set of grotesque human rights violations. It doesn’t work, it’s wrong, and it needs to change. Now. Biden could start by actually tearing down the border wall.