“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” - US President Donald Trump, June 2015
In the past, the border between the US and Mexico was left practically unattended and no one probably considered any aspect of immigration or border security. On May 28, 1924, the US Congress established the US Border Patrol for securing the borders. In 1952, legislation expanded and codified the role of the Border Patrol and they began to take more active measures to control immigration across the border. At that time too, illegal immigration began to bourgeon and the southern border was used frequently to cross over illegally into the US.
The steady flow of illegal migration into the US continued throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s and the 1980’s. While the Border Patrol and other agencies tried their best to stanch the flow of these immigrants, they were often overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the border, the difficult terrain and the large numbers making the crossing. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by then President Ronald Reagan. Among other things, this law gave amnesty to illegal immigrants already inside the US, subject to certain conditions.
Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the flow of illegal immigrants continued steadily. Soon, concerns about illegal immigration began to surface. As a response to these growing concerns, the US Border Patrol launched Operation Gatekeeper in September 1994. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 further tightened the laws and made it easier to deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes. It also gave broad authority to construct barriers along the border between the US and Mexico. Thus, the US government had been continually trying to curb illegal immigration and improve border security for the better part of the 20th century.
In 2003, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began Operation Endgame to detain and deport all removable aliens and “suspected terrorists” living in the US by 2012. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also changed its policy to tackle illegal immigration. It adopted what it called the Consequence Delivery System which emphasised “high consequence” enforcement for unauthorised immigrants apprehended at the border. In addition, the construction of the border fence/wall also gained momentum. It is against this backdrop that the current border security and immigration issue has flared up. The current events regarding the border has its origins in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
He made illegal immigration and border security the centerpiece of his campaign. Even as early as 2013, he railed against illegal immigration in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). During his campaign, he kept stressing the importance of border security and the need to tackle the crisis of illegal immigration. He repeatedly stressed the need to build a border wall to improve border security. Upon election, he undertook a number of measures to improve border security and curtail illegal immigration. On April 6, 2018, the Trump administration adopted a zero-tolerance policy about improper entry into the United States. The most controversial aspect of this policy was that it separated children from parents who attempted to enter into the US without valid documentation.
Given this background and the current state of affairs, let us see what are the implications for border security and illegal immigration.
Any immigration reform must address this fact if it is to be meaningful and gainful. Illegal Immigration is a major issue which has derailed immigration reforms on multiple occasions
The present immigration system is still based most on the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1985. However, immigration and immigration patterns have changed greatly since then. There has been large influx of potential immigrants who have arrived here legally as students and as highly skilled workers. They harbour dreams of immigrating permanently into the US and many of them are at various stages of immigrating while maintaining lawful status.
They are now facing incredibly long wait times for their status to be adjusted to immigrants. Any immigration reform must address this fact if it is to be meaningful and gainful. Illegal Immigration is a major issue which has derailed immigration reforms on multiple occasion. The US has at present 10.7 million illegal immigrants living inside the US as per the 2016 figures. They have also put down deep roots here as approximately 66% of these illegal immigrants have lived in the US for more than 10 years.
Given this large number and the deep roots these people have developed in the country, it defies logic and common sense to try and deport them all. Thus, the only possible and practical solution is to provide a path to legalisation of these illegal immigrants and a pathway to citizenship.
Border Security is vital for immigration reform and unless the border is secure against future illegal immigration, any proposed immigration reform would be a short-term measure and the present dilemma will resurface. However, there are a few positive aspects to note here. Leaving aside the present politically charged issue of the “great border wall”, border security has been increasing steadily since the 1990’s and illegal immigration into the US has also reduced in the recent past.
Keeping the above aspects in mind, the best solution to the current impasse is to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The bill has to address the three main issues discussed above. A possible bill should include measures to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the US. At present, the legal immigration system is also heavily backed up. This backlog creates lot of uncertainty and anxiety for the applicant. Any comprehensive immigration reform bill has to clear this backlog and provide the applicants with speedy adjustment of status. This will go a long way in resolving the issue.
Border security measures need to be constantly kept up with the threat perceptions and latest means of illegals to get across. In addition to border fencing, increased surveillance on the border, improved biometric measures, interior enforcement measures also need to be kept up to reduce the incentive for visa overstayers. This is an ongoing process and need to be monitored constantly.
While the politicians may bicker and posture, the public mood is remarkably pragmatic about immigration reform. According to the recent Pew Poll, 47% of the people surveyed said that both border security and pathway to citizenship should be considered to tackle illegal immigration. About 32% say that a pathway to citizenship should be considered. Just 20% favour a border security-only approach. This is something the politicians should take note of and act.
(Lt Col Swarup R. Das is a former Indian Army officer with extensive experience in border conflict and counter terrorism. He is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Texas A&M University)