On the Thursday before Christmas, President Biden called Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and asked for help. The number of migrants crossing into the U.S. — about 10,000 per day — had reached the highest level of Biden’s presidency. The surge was creating major problems, including lockdowns at a New Mexico high school where migrants were streaming across the grounds and the closure of a rail bridge over the Rio Grande that carried commercial goods.
López Obrador responded by telling Biden to send a delegation of top officials to visit him in Mexico City. The next week, that delegation, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, arrived for talks. Partly in response, Mexico soon began to enforce its own immigration laws more strictly, making it harder for migrants from other countries to use Mexico as a route to the U.S. Among other things, López Obrador’s government has increased deportations of migrants to their home countries and disrupted bus networks run by cartels that funnel migrants from other countries toward the U.S. border.
The crackdown has made a noticeable difference, too.
Migration flows at the U.S.-Mexico border fell more than 50 percent in early January, according to data that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency released last week. The numbers have since risen somewhat, officials have told me, but are still well below the December levels.
Mexico’s crackdown doesn’t come close to solving the migration problem, of course. Illegal immigration remains far higher than it was in the 2010s. Many migrants now believe that they will be able to remain in the U.S. for years, so long as they reach the border — regardless of what of the law says. Voters are unhappy about the situation. So are mayors and governors from both parties who are struggling with housing and social services.
Nonetheless, Mexico’s recent efforts offer a reminder: Stricter enforcement of immigration laws really does tend to reduce migration flows.
Cost vs. benefit
That point may seem obvious, but it’s one that many politicians from both parties question. In recent days, House Republicans and Donald Trump have criticized the outlines of a bipartisan Senate deal that would significantly tighten border security. Trump suggested it was “worse than no border deal.” (The most plausible explanation for his stance is politics — namely, that continuing border chaos could increase his chances of beating Biden in November.)
Many progressive Democrats, for their part, argue that border security is ineffective at stopping illegal immigration. The way to make a difference, they say, is to reduce poverty and oppression in other countries and to make people less interested in moving to the U.S.
But the evidence belies these arguments. The security of the border both directly and indirectly affects migration flows. In the short term, a less porous border allows fewer people to enter the U.S. For example, the migrants whom Mexico recently deported — including some who had arrived by airplane from outside the Western Hemisphere — might otherwise have made it to the U.S.
Longer term, a more secure border changes the calculation for people contemplating a harrowing journey toward the U.S. If entry to the U.S. — a far richer country than most — seems likely, many more people will attempt it. If it seems unlikely, the costs of the journey will dissuade more.
Mexico’s recent crackdown is merely the latest evidence of this pattern. Biden’s presidency is an even bigger example.
In response to Trump’s extreme opposition to immigration — including his lies and racist insults about immigrants — Biden and other Democrats moved far in the other direction. As The Economist recently wrote, Trump “radicalized” some Democrats on immigration. The party’s 2020 platform said nothing about border security and was devoted largely to making entry into the U.S. easier, mostly through legal pathways but also by going easier on illegal immigration.
I want to emphasize that most Americans have long believed, and still believe, that their country should be a haven for people fleeing political repression. The Biden administration’s approach has gone further, however. In the name of humanitarianism, it has broadened policies that were historically focused on political refugees, changing them to admit more migrants who are attracted to the U.S.’s high living standards.
“What’s novel about the Biden years has been the vastly expanded use of parole and asylum in boosting immigration by those who could not hope to get through normal legal channels,” John Judis has written for the Liberal Patriot newsletter. In response, migration jumped far above the levels during Trump’s or Barack Obama’s presidencies.
(Social media videos, showing migrants who have made it to the U.S., also play a role, my colleague Miriam Jordan points out. Her latest article focuses on migrants’ belief — often accurate — that the country’s dysfunctional asylum system will allow them to stay indefinitely.)
A new approach
In recent months, Biden has begun to change his initial approach, recognizing the problems with a more open border. Last week, he promised to “to shut down the border” if Congress passed a bill that allowed him to do so.
It remains unclear whether Republicans will agree to such a deal — or, mostly for political reasons, will choose to let the problem fester. Without a deal, Biden is likely to look for ways within current law to tighten border security. They exist but are more limited.
Either way, the Biden administration appears to be on the verge of doing the same thing that it recently urged Mexico to do: enforce existing immigration laws more tightly.
House Republicans accuse Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s homeland security secretary, of breaking the law by failing to enforce immigration rules. But federal law gives the administration broad discretion over border policy.
Read how Biden has struggled to enact his immigration plans and failed to manage a rise in arrivals.
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