A compelling explanation for why the American immigration system is more restrictive than other developed countries is that voters here do not feel that they have control over the border. Pictures, videos, and the widespread perception that there is chaos on the border caused by illegal immigrants, despite facts to the contrary, have the effect of convincing American voters to be less liberal on the issue than they otherwise would be. A recent paper by political scientists Allison Harell, Stuart Soroka, and Shanto Iyengar in the journal Political Psychology tests this “locus of control” argument by comparing immigration policies in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom with perceptions of control over immigration and its impact on their society.
Harell et alia examine three perceived loci of control: individual, social, and an outgroup’s control over one’s own economic condition. Across the three countries, the more that a respondent perceives himself and his society as being in control, the more pro-immigration he is. When a respondent thinks that immigrants are responsible for his own personal economic or life outcomes then he is more hostile toward them because of his perceived lack of control. They sum up their findings as:
Those who feel in control (personally or as a society) are less hostile towards immigrants, while those who attribute negative outcomes to immigrants’ predispositions are also more hostile. Results also suggest that measures of control are related to, but distinct from, both partisanship and racial prejudice.
Respondents’ perceptions of control across countries are related to the openness of immigration policies in the three countries studied by Harel et alia. Canada has the most open immigration policy and Canadians have the greatest sense of control over immigration. Americans and British feel like they have less control, due to the Southern border with Mexico and membership in the Schengen Area, respectively. Some of these measures of control, such as individual, social, or an outgroup’s degree of power, vary between the countries but the pattern holds: a greater perception of control is correlated with a more open immigration system.
Harell et alia’s theory passes the smell test, is consistent with what I know about psychology, and their empirics help explain different immigration policies across this small sample of countries. However, the recent separation of families, caging of child migrants and asylum seekers on the border, the inability of the government to reunite them efficiently, and the chaos that this has created add an important caveat. Voter reactions to border chaos probably depend on whom they blame for the chaos. If voters blame the pro-immigration political party for the chaos, then voters are more likely to react by adopting more anti-immigration views. With the exception of the current situation, politicians with a pro-immigration reputation (even when undeserved) have presided over the recent border crises so it makes sense that respondents would blame them. However, if voters blame the anti-immigration political party for the chaos then they could react by adopting more pro-immigration views.
There are two cases that help illustrate this point.
There was a large surge of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) on the border in 2014 that caused a crisis for the Obama administration. Republicans reacted by claiming that Obama created the chaos by being too lax in enforcing immigration laws and that his announcement of DACA created the mass influx – two assertions that do not stand up to a bare minimum of scrutiny. First, President Obama was nicknamed the Deporter-in-Chief because he deported more people than any other administration and will likely never have that odious honor taken from him. As for border security, the number of crossers precipitously fell during his administration due to the poor American economy, rising fortunes and falling birthrates south of the border, and more effective border enforcement. Secondly, the surge in child migrants that led to the crisis for Obama in 2014 began before he announced DACA, continued after everybody knew that the new crossers were ineligible, and was more linked to homicides in Central American countries than any change in American policy (although Mexican policy mattered quite a bit). Regardless, voters blamed the feckless-looking Obama administration for the border chaos and Republicans took control of the Senate that year and nominated the most anti-immigration candidate in the GOP primary for president who shortly thereafter went on to barely win the election.
President Trump is now dealing with his own border surge just like President Obama did. The recent surge in asylum seekers along the southwest border who enter unlawfully and surrender to Border Patrol is entirely an unintended creation of the Trump administration’s anti-asylum policies. First, Trump’s administration has turned away many asylum seekers along the border and told them to “come back later.” Second, they were changing asylum rules to restrict who could ask in the first place. Those two factors, individually and together, incentivized asylum seekers to enter the United States illegally and ask for asylum because, for all they knew, they would never be able to at a port of entry. They did so and got struck by the Trump administration’s third policy: zero tolerance and prosecution of all unlawful border crossers. Since Trump’s administration ordered that every border crosser had to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, the government separated parents from their minor children so as to charge the former with the misdemeanor of illegal entry. Children aren’t caged with their parents when their parents are charged with a crime. That turned into the nightmare of children in cages without their parents and the government’s inability to reunite them with their parents in many cases.
Obama looked helpless, incompetent, and brutal in the 2014 border chaos as his administration caged entire families in deplorable conditions. Trump now looks incompetent, brutal, and responsible for everything that’s happened on the border under his watch. Republicans politically capitalized on the border chaos in 2014 by painting the Democrats as either complicit with the migrants or helpless to stop it. The Republicans introduced a bill to gut the asylum system in response. The Democrats, for their part, didn’t have a coherent explanation except “nuh-uh.”
Now that the dynamic has flipped, and anti-immigration politicians are being blamed for the chaos, we can test the locus of control theory. If enough voters also blame their recent perceptions of border chaos and lack of control on anti-immigration politicians then they could react by supporting more liberal immigration policy rather than reflexively opposing liberalization. Polling already shows that Americans are more supportive of increasing immigration during the Trump administration, and perhaps this could be in response to the chaos created by his policies or the fact that they are too brutal for voters, but those numbers have also been trending up for decades.
It is difficult for President Trump and the Republican Party to capitalize on the border chaos that he created when everybody believes that they created it. The recent surge in asylum seekers and migrants on the border could provide an excellent testing ground for this caveat to the locus of control theory and whether perceptions of chaos always lead to less support for liberalization.
There are many aggravating tropes that keep reemerging in the debate over immigration policy but one of the worst is that every problem with the U.S. immigration system is the result of the supposedly perfidious Mexico. Changes in Mexican law and policy certainly have an impact on immigration to the United States but it is not true that our laws would operate wonderfully even if foreign governments had policies to support them. Those who blame Mexico should, at the minimum, get their stories straight.
In many versions of this tale, the Mexican government is hypocritical because its immigration laws are strict yet it complains about laws like SB 1070 in Arizona and the deportation of Mexican citizens from the United States. Talk radio show host Rush Limbaugh famously used this rhetorical tactic when sarcastically (maybe?) proposing a series of immigration reforms that mirrored the worst of Mexican immigration law in 2007.
The Mexican government fiercely criticized the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010, a bill that forced state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. When then-President of Mexico Felipe Calderon visited the White House and intended to complain about the law directly to President Obama, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) said, “I wonder if they'll discuss whether or not Calderon supports his own country's immigration policy.” Both Limbaugh and Poe rightly criticized Mexico’s famously restrictive, self-destructive, and hypocritical immigration policy.
Partly in response to the American criticism, Mexico gradually reformed its immigration laws beginning in 2008. In that year, Mexico reduced the punishment for illegal entry to a maximum fine of 5,000 pesos, down from a potential ten-year prison sentence. They also created a temporary agricultural guest worker visa program for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states. In 2010, the Mexican government stated that illegal immigrants would not have to fear immigration enforcement when reporting human rights violations or receiving medical treatment.
The Mexican government did not stop there. The Mexican Congress passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012. This law replaced the Mexican General Law of Population that was the source of their restrictive immigration laws. Among other things, the new Mexican immigration law allowed immigrants and migrants equal access to Mexican courts, reduced the power of local police to enforce immigration law, reformed the humanitarian admissions system, simplified entrance and reduced residency requirement by, in part, creating a points system, and created a three-day regional visitor's visa for people from neighboring countries. In other words, Mexico liberalized and expanded its legal immigration system. Although Mexican reforms did not go far enough, they were a significant step away from protectionism toward a more liberal immigration regime.
Shortly after the Migratory Act of 2011 went into effect, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended by Border Patrol skyrocketed (Figure 1). The change in Mexican immigration law allowed Central Americans to travel to the U.S. border in greater numbers which, combined with the worsening economic and crime problems in Central America, helped exacerbate a surge of non-Mexican (OTM) illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who were overwhelmingly from south of Mexico’s border (Figure 2). Other non-Mexican legal changes like the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement, that created a visa-less Central America among El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, also made it cheaper for migrants or UAC from those countries to make it to Mexico and then to the United States.
Southwest Border Monthly Border Patrol Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
A new Congressional Research Service report provides a handy overview of the current state of knowledge surrounding Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) apprehended on the Southwest border. Many Central American children and other family members have crossed the border and sought asylum in the United States.
UAC apprehensions so far in 2016 exceed those apprehended in 2015 but they are still below the peak year of 2014 (See Figure 1).
Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
The number of apprehensions is up this year on a monthly basis. The UAC are a small fraction of the total apprehensions (Figure 2)
All Apprehensions and UAC
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
UAC apprehensions are concentrated in just a few border sectors, most are entering through Texas (Figure 3). A map of the border patrol sectors puts the flow in perspective (Figure 4).
UAC Apprehensions by Border Sector
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
Border Patrol Sectors
Source: Customs and Border Protection.
If the UAC could instead receive a worker visa or green card then they would not have to brave the difficult trip through Mexico from Central America and endure uncertainty and detention once they reach the United States. Border Patrol wouldn’t have to waste their time apprehending these folks but could instead focus on stopping actual violent and property crime. The lack of a legal immigration alternative for the UACs and their family already in the United States has created this situation. An expanded legal immigration system can fix it.
The surge of unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) that dominated the news cycle in June and July of this year has receded – so much so that many emergency shelters established to handle the inflow are shutting down. At the height of the surge, many commentators and government officials expected 90,000 UAC to be apprehended by the end of the fiscal year (FY). As the end of the FY approaches, the number of apprehended UAC stands at roughly 66,000 - far below the estimates.
Now that the surge has receded, here are some of the most absurd overreactions to it. Never before have so many commentators been so angry over so few migrants.
1. U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) quoted in “POLITIFACT: Deadly viruses part of border crisis?” Tampa Bay Times (July 29).
Rep. Gingrey said: “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” [Emphasis added]
Ebola is a terrifying virus and a recent outbreak in West Africa shared the headlines with the surge in UAC, but that doesn’t mean the two events are linked. Rep. Gingrey’s office indicated that he heard about child migrants carrying Ebola from border agents. The rest of us are still waiting to hear about it.
2. Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Camp of the Saints, 2014 Style?” National Review Online (June 13).
Apparently the terrible consequences of an influx of child migrants, which was only equal to about 6 percent of the total number of legal immigrants admitted this year, was predicted by a controversial 1973 French novel entitled The Camp of the Saints – which described the end of Western Civilization due to an influx of third-world immigrants.
Owens’ comments reveal a Western tradition that should be abandoned – that every small issue signals the downfall of Western Civilization.
3. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, “SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a fire threat to U.S. national security,” Military Times (July 8).
“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and illegal alien flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance. Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.” [Emphasis added]
There are certainly national security challenges that accompany America’s disastrous prosecution of the war on drugs and there is a security component to regulating immigration. But it is quite a leap to go from pointing out problems that could potentially get worse to then stating they are “existential.”
After much debate, the House finally rolled out its version of a supplemental appropriations bill to deal with the surge of unaccompanied children (UAC) entering the United States. The bill would treat Mexican and Central American UAC equally under the law - meaning they all would have fewer due process protections than many adults.
1. Interviews: The bill would treat Central Americans the same as how Mexican children are already treated. But Mexican children are subject to fewer due process protections than adults in two ways. First, apprehended adults are interviewed by asylum officers who are trained in country-conditions and asylum law. Under current law, Mexican children are interviewed by Border Patrol agents who are untrained in this area. In one case, a United Nations report found that a Border Patrol agent believed that a child who had expressed a fear of being trafficked had to be returned “because the paperwork was already filled out.” Children are also expected to describe their fears of persecution and descriptions of traumatic and violent experiences to a gun-carrying law enforcement agent, which in many cases is an unreasonable request. In fact, a 2011 study by the Appleseed Foundation concluded that “no meaningful screening is being conducted” by Border Patrol.
2. Appeals: Second, under current law, adult asylum seekers can appeal a determination by an asylum officer that they lack a “credible” asylum claim to an immigration judge (IJ). The IJ can reverse the decision. Mexican children cannot appeal the decision of a border agent – they are simply summarily removed from the United States. This bill would treat Central American children in the same way, denying them an appeal. The importance of these provisions was recently highlighted by the case of a Honduran girl who was accidentally deported to Mexico. The United Nations found that border agents are requiring children to “prove they are being persecuted or trafficked” on the spot despite the fact that they are supposed to simply screen out those without any claim at all. IJs mitigate that problem.
In June, 2012 the Obama Administration announced that it had authored a memo deferring the deportation of unauthorized immigrant childhood arrivals in the United States, a program known as deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA). The memo directed then Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to practice prosecutorial discretion toward a small number of unauthorized immigrants who fulfilled a specific set of characteristics. In essence, some unauthorized immigrants who had come to the United States as children were able to legally stay and work–at least temporarily.
Did DACA Cause the UAC Surge?
Some politicians contend that DACA is primarily responsible for the surge in unaccompanied child (UAC) migrants across the border in recent years. A recent House Appropriations Committee one-pager stated that, “The dire situation on our Southern border has been exacerbated by the President’s current immigration policies.” Proponents of this theory argue that DACA sent a message to Central Americans that if they came as children then the U.S. government would legalize them, thus giving a large incentive for them to come in the first place. Few facts of the unaccompanied children (UAC) surge are consistent with the theory that DACA caused the surge.
First, the surge in UAC began long before the June 15, 2012 announcement of DACA. It is true that DACA had been discussed in late May 2012 but the surge was underway by that time. From October 2011 through March 2012, there was a 93 percent increase in UAC apprehensions over the same period in Fiscal Year 2011. Texas Governor Rick Perry warned President Obama about the rapid increase in UAC at the border in early May 2012 – more than a full month before DACA was announced. In early June 2012, Mexico was detaining twice as many Central American children as in 2011. The surge in unaccompanied children (UAC) began before DACA was announced.
Second, the children coming now are not legally able to apply for DACA. A recipient of DACA has to have resided in the United States continuously from June 15, 2007 to June 15, 2012, a requirement that excludes the unaccompanied children coming now.
Third, if DACA was such an incentive for UAC to come from Central America, why are so few Nicaraguan children coming? They would benefit in the same way as unaccompanied children from El Salvdaor, Honduras, and Guatemala. The lack of Nicaraguans points to other causes of the surge.
The timing, legal exclusion of the UAC from DACA, and lack of Nicaraguans indicate that DACA was not a primary cause of the surge. Of the 404 UAC interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2011, only 9 mentioned that U.S. laws influenced their decision to come to the United States. Other American laws could have influenced the unaccompanied children to come but DACA is not the main culprit.
Details on DACA
The DACA beneficiaries, at the time of the memo, would have to fulfill all of these requirements to have their deportations deferred:
- Under the age of 31,
- Arrived to the United States before reaching their 16th birthday,
- Entered the United States without inspection or overstayed a visa prior to June 15, 2012,
- Continuously resided in the United States from June 15, 2007 to the time of the memo,
- Physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, as well as at the time of requesting deferred action from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS),
- Been in school at the time of application, or have already graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, or have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Armed Forces
- Not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Beneficiaries of DACA were also allowed to apply for employment authorization according to the Code of Federal Regulations. There is a debate amongst legal scholars over whether the administration’s grant of deferred action was legal. Those who argue that DACA was illegal contend that the President overstepped his constitutional authority to defer the deportation of some unauthorized immigrants. Those who argue that DACA was legal point to the general power of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to defer enforcement action. They argue that the Supreme Court has ruled that decisions to initiate or terminate enforcement proceedings fall within the authority of the Executive – an enforcement power used since the early 1970s. Here is more of their argument. This disagreement has not been settled.
By the end of September, 2013, 580,000 requests for DACA were accepted by the U.S. government and 514,800, or 89 percent, were approved. Seventy-six percent of the requests came from Mexicans. Twenty-nine percent of the requests were filed from California, 16 percent from Texas, and 6 percent from Illinois.
U.S. policy is equally generous to unaccompanied children (UAC) from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – but today's child migrants are not coming from Nicaragua. Explaining why Nicaraguan UAC are not part of the recent surge may help explain why so many are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras - the so-called Northern Triangle.
Nicaragua has low rates of violent crime, gang membership, and fewer family connections to the United States than the Northern Triangle. If U.S. policy was the main reason why there is a sudden surge of UAC, it should also pull UAC from Nicaragua. This suggests that other factors like the high levels of violence and strong family connections are the main reasons why UAC from the Northern Triangle are coming and why Nicaraguan UAC are absent.
Nicaragua has a much lower homicide rate than El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. According to the United Nations, there has been a dramatic increase in murder rates across Central America since 2006 – except in Nicaragua.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime https://www.unodc.org/gsh/en/data.htm.