Despite—or Maybe Because of—Trump's Immigration Crackdown, Record Number of Families Crossing Southern Border

Trump's failed immigration policy reveals hard truths about intentions versus outcomes.


Georgetown Book Shop/Reason

This can't be making anybody in the Trump White House very happy:

Border Patrol agents arrested 16,658 family members in September, the highest one-month total on record and an 80 percent increase from July, according to unpublished Department of Homeland Security statistics obtained by The Washington Post….

The latest DHS figures show 107,212 members of "family units" were taken into custody during fiscal 2018, obliterating the previous high of 77,857 set in 2016.

The number of "unaccompanied alien children" and single adults apprehended remained essentially unchanged last month, another indication that more migrants who might have traveled alone in the past are now bringing children with them.

Read more here.

Washington Post

So the most openly anti-immigrant president in memory is watching his country be overrun with exactly the sorts of people he promised to keep out. Restrictionists will tell you that's because the media shed too many tears for parents and children being separated at the border and a Republican Congress refuses to pass the sort of budgets and laws that will finally seal the Southern border with a big, beautiful wall. A DHS spokeswoman told the Post:

"The removal of actual family units, or those posing as family units, has been made virtually impossible by Congressional inaction—which will most likely result in record numbers of families arriving illegally in the United States this year."

There's at least three things to note immediately.

First, a recent DHS internal report criticized the policy of separating families at the border for making it harder for border patrol to "focus on their primary mission…of patrolling and securing the border." That is, the government's own watchdog said the "zero tolerance" policy enacted at the urging of Trump adviser Stephen Miller was not a good idea. Second, despite President Trump's claims to the contrary, there is in fact no law mandating that the government must separate minor children from their parents when they enter the country. All the bad press—and the suffering and trauma—is on Trump, not on "the Democrats," or even his own Republican majority.

Third, yet most important from a long-term policy point of view: we need to recognize that governments of relatively free countries don't really control migration flows, especially of illegals coming into the country.

This is something that libertarians understand more readily than many others, because we recognize that governments are generally less efficacious than supposed. All policies produce unintended consequences, but that's especially the case with immigration. Consider the rise of illegal immigrants of Mexican descent since the late 1980s. Writing in 2006 at Reason, Carolyn Lochhead noted that one of the reasons so many Mexican migrants started staying in the country was because of tightened border security that had been put in place precisely to keep them out:

Many experts believe the current pattern of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America was a consequence of the 1986 law's border tightening, followed by a tougher crackdown in 1996 that built fences in San Diego and El Paso. "The perverse effect has been to dramatically lower return migration out of the country," says Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociologist and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, a longitudinal survey of more than 18,000 migrants, the largest of its kind. "So we've transformed what was before 1986 a circular flow of workers into an increasingly settled population of families. We have actually accelerated the rate of undocumented population growth in the United States and shifted it from a less costly population of male workers into a much more costly population of families."

The problem, Massey says, is that by making border crossing "very risky and unpleasant and increasingly expensive, you prolong the length of the trips, you reduce the probability of return migration, and you make it more likely that migrants…just hunker down and stay." The rate of migration from Mexico has actually stayed constant for the last two decades, Massey found. But the rate of return has fallen by half, from 50 percent to 25 percent.

Migration Policy Institute

Who knew trying to control thousands of miles of border and millions of individuals' desires could be so tricky, right?

Add to that the simple reality that it's much easier (though still hard) to keep people from leaving a country than to keep them from coming in, especially if you run a capitalist economy based on trade, tourism, and educational opportunities. Cuba and North Korea—nobody really wants to move there and they could build effective mechanisms to imprison those unlucky enough to be born or otherwise trapped there. But in the United States, for the most part, immigration comes and goes in large waves, based on the relative attractiveness of our economic offerings and personal freedoms. In the late 19th century, we passed explicitly racist laws keeping "Asians" out (basically, anyone from the Middle East and Asia), but they weren't coming in giant numbers anyway. In the 1920s, we added equally racist laws designed to block Southern and Central Europeans and their numbers did decline—but mostly because of a global depression, World War II, and the rebuilding of Europe after the war. Indeed, when U.S. immigration law was changed in 1965 to favor "family reunification," nobody assumed that Mexicans or Asians would start entering the country in large numbers, though that is exactly what happened.

"In general," Philip Martin, a farm immigration expert at University of California-Davis, told Lochhead in 2006, "the unintended consequences of immigration reforms are more important than the intended consequences." Probably the only way to make sure you have less and less immigration over time is by totally fragging your economy and doing mass executions.


When it comes to the families now rushing the border, two factors are probably most at work to explain the recent jump. The first one is the instability and extremeness of the Trump position, which has swung back and forth between zero tolerance and a return to the prior policy. If you're not sure the door is going to be open or shut on a regular basis, you might as well take your best shot as soon as possible. The other, far-more-important factor is what's going on in the countries from which people are fleeing. By most accounts, we reached peak Mexican in 2007 or 2008, when our economy tanked and Mexico's became relatively attractive to natives. Poverty rates in Guatemala and Honduras, two of the biggest sender countries, are at 60 percent. Gang violence is bad and getting worse, especially in El Salvador, another major contributor to the flow of families. Desperate people go to desperate lengths and there's little reason to think U.S. policy is going to have a major impact on how many people show up at the Southern border.

What we do have control over is how we treat people when they arrive. The zero-tolerance plan wasn't just exquisitely cruel, it was also ineffective, with even anti-immigrant groups acknowledging the slight drop in apprehensions recorded while it was in effect was in line with seasonal fluctuations. There's no reason to be afraid of the people hiking the desert to get here. Their numbers aren't that great and their character is not suspect at all (illegal immigration does not increase violent or non-violent crime).

Here's one final unintended consequence that President Trump might find interesting: His rhetoric and policies on immigration have managed to drive approval of immigration to historic highs. Fully two-thirds of Republicans, 75 percent of all adults, and 85 percent of Democrats now agree with the statement that "immigration is a good thing" for the country today. If Trump runs for a second term, he could drive those numbers even higher.

Watch "ICE's No Tolerance Policy is Wreaking Havoc on Families and Clogging the Immigration System."