We Have Exacerbated Underlying Problems / by Karie Luidens


On Friday, the same day that New Mexico’s southern border received its 27th large group of asylum seekers since October 2018, Congressman Beto O’Rourke published a new essay. As the former U.S. Representative of Texas District 16, which includes the city of El Paso and its stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, he apparently felt the need to speak up at this moment to address our immigration situation’s—well—symptoms and causes:

Beto O'Rourke
Feb 8

The President is coming to El Paso Monday [2/11/19]. He will promise a wall and will repeat his lies about the dangers that immigrants pose. With El Paso as the backdrop, he will claim that this city of immigrants was dangerous before a border fence was built here in 2008.

Beyond refuting his comments about border communities like ours […] it’s worth thinking about how we got to this place. How it came to be that 11 million undocumented immigrants call America home, how we came to militarize our border, how we arrived at such a disconnect between our ideals, our values, the reality of our lives — and the policies and political rhetoric that govern immigration and border security.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the challenges we face are largely of our own design — a function of the unintended consequences of immigration policy and the rhetoric we’ve used to describe immigrants and the border. At almost every step of modern immigration policy and immigration politics, we have exacerbated underlying problems and made things worse. Sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes with the most cynical exploitation of nativism and fear.

He goes on to summarize the last century or so of the United States’ policies toward people’s migration from (and back to) Mexico. To summarize his summary:

  • In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico jointly instituted the “bracero program,” which encouraged Mexican workers to come to the U.S. as manual laborers and guaranteed decent living and working conditions for them while they were here.

  • In 1965, the U.S. ended this program. Legally, most Mexican workers were no longer permitted to enter the country or work here; in reality, none of the economic conditions changed overnight. A O’Rourke puts it, “after decades of employing this labor, with our economy dependent on the laborers and the laborers dependent on access to the U.S. job market, the system of low-cost Mexican labor didn’t go away.” Mexican workers continued to migrate here, but suddenly they went from documented to undocumented.

  • Politicians began using frightening language to “gin up anxiety and paranoia” and push “every more repressive policies to deter their entry.”

  • Ironically, these harsher and harsher policies actually “caused the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States to grow.” Militarizing the border meant it was no longer safe for laborers to cross back and forth seasonally. Instead, once they were in the U.S. they stayed put and gradually sent for their family members to join them here.

  • “In addition, walls and fences authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 pushed migration flows to ever more treacherous stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 4,500 human beings died crossing the border from 2006 to 2017.

Which brings us to the present situation:

In recent years, as Mexican migration slowed and then reversed (more Mexican nationals going south to Mexico than coming north to the United States), and as total undocumented immigration reached its lowest levels in modern history, the country was met with the challenge of tens of thousands of Central American families fleeing violence and brutality to petition for asylum in our country.

This too is an unintended consequence. Our involvement in the civil wars and domestic politics of Central American countries, in addition to our ability to consume more illegal drugs than any other country on the planet while leading a military- and law enforcement-first drug control policy, has helped to destroy the institutions of civil society necessary for those countries to function. They can no longer protect their citizens, and their citizens are coming to us.