Beyond the Wall: an In-Depth Look at U.S. Immigration Policy


This past weekend thousands of activists across the United States took the streets for May Day in support of immigrants and workers’ rights. The 2016 Presidential election will have major implications for U.S. immigration policy for years to come, but moving past bombastic rhetoric about border walls and mass deportations, questions remain about what is politically possible and how much U.S. politicians are willing to alter their thinking on the issue. In the United States, politicians on the right often use a fear of crime, terrorism and immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean to tap into widespread reactionary feelings. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s inflammatory rhetoric about migrants from Mexico, in particular, is a not-so-subtle appeal to the white working class that racial privilege has limits in a country that is rapidly diversifying. Combine that with an economic recovery that disproportionately squeezes both the working and middle classes, and the conditions are ripe to make immigration a key issue in U.S. politics. In contrast to the Republican presidential hopefuls Democrats have a more complicated relationship with immigration policy. On one hand, there is widespread support for compassionate policies like the DREAM Act, but on the other, as demonstrated by the Obama administration’s precarious handling of the 2009 Honduran coup U.S. policy makers are often disconnected from the regional impact of their decisions especially in regards to migration.

The United States will doubtfully ever have completely closed borders. Aside from the humanitarian and environmental implications of further militarizing the U.S.-Mexican border, the mountainous landscape presents geographical limitations as well. Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute told CNBC that he estimates the cost to complete the rest of the border wall, which spans approximately 1,300 miles of rugged terrain, runs between $15 and $25 billion. Donald Trump, on the other hand, argues the cost can be covered through extorting Mexico into paying a one-time payment of $5-$10 billion or halting remittances from the U.S. to Mexico under a broad interpretation of the Patriot Act. This would likely fall well short of the actual cost to complete construction of the border wall and raise a number of unprecedented legal questions. More importantly, migration is driven by a diverse range of factors and without addressing issues like corruption, crime, violence, political instability, high levels of poverty, and social or economic inequality in the originating countries, it is likely that increased border security will simply result in migrants utilizing more creative, but extremely dangerous, human smuggling networks. According to a report from InSight Crime, a think tank that monitors organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, from March of this year, migrants know the dangers associated with heading north; yet choose to make the trip anyway because “they feel the risk of staying in their home country outweighs the risks of attempting the journey.”

In Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), gang violence, extortion, violent crime, and corrupt police forces, along with considerable economic inequality, are the primary factors driving migration north. This complicates the U.S. response because the Refugee Act of 1980 specifically applies to those fleeing “persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” which is distinct from economic migrants who travel abroad to seek better economic opportunities. It is often difficult to verify an individual’s backstory and it has resulted in a contradictory policy where some people qualify for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, while others coming from nearly identical scenarios face deportation.

The United States has a long history of treating its neighbors poorly. In recent years, with the exception of the “War on Drugs,” much of the U.S. geopolitical attention has shifted away from regional affairs toward West Asia and North Africa. But for people in Latin America and the Caribbean, there are memories of over a century of U.S. policies responsible for funding coups, backing dictators, exploiting resources, creating inescapable debt and destabilizing the region. In some instances, changes in U.S. domestic policy have also had unintentional consequences that directly affect regional migration.

For instance, in 1996, the U.S. government passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the circumstances that immigrants could be deported, resulting in a sharp uptick of criminal deportees from the U.S. to Central America. This marks about the same time gangs born in the California prison system, like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, first appeared in Central American cities. Today these two organizations are engaged in a violent gang war that has turned El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala into three of the most lethal countries in the world. Gang members have also managed to infiltrate El Salvador’s police and armed forces, adding to the country’s longstanding problem of institutional corruption. This leaves citizens with little security and is one of the main reasons that children from these countries have become one of the primary groups making the dangerous journey north.

Political instability in Honduras has also raised concerns about U.S. commitment to democracy in the region. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will likely be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, has been criticized by journalists, international affairs experts and indigenous rights activists for her role in legitimizing the 2009 coup that removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from power. Zelaya clashed with the United States on a number of issues including his drug policy, which directly contradicted the DEA’s regional enforcement strategy. He also proposed a controversial national poll to gauge public interest in modifying the 1982 Honduran Constitution and moved to the left on a number issues, putting him at odds with the country’s media. Despite these controversies, he was democratically elected and assumed office on January 27, 2006, meaning he should have served until January of 2010. Instead, he was kidnapped by the country’s military on June 28, 2009, and taken into exile.

The Obama administration’s official position was that the coup was illegal and that Manuel Zelaya was still the President of Honduras, but when the Organization of American States proposed a resolution to immediately return him to power, the U.S. blocked it. Hillary Clinton would later write in her memoir Hard Choices, “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.” Rendering Zelaya “moot” is a reminder that the United States often supports democracy conditionally. Leftist leaders like Zelaya, who are at odds with U.S. national interests, are disposable even if it means a significant breakdown in the country’s security. The New York Times recently reported that, “Alongside the gang and drug violence, a steady drumbeat of assassinations of journalists, lawyers, labor and peasant leaders and environmental activists has come to mark Honduran politics ever since a 2009 coup.” Since that time there has simultaneously been a 1,272 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied minors from Honduras that have been apprehended on the U.S.-Mexican border. Interestingly enough, Secretary Clinton’s entire two-page discussion on the coup was removed from last year’s paperback edition of her book.

Further, the ongoing political breakdown in Haiti is another scenario that reveals the complexity of U.S. immigration policy. The United States has a tumultuous history with its island neighbor that includes supporting two generations of repressive dictators, allegations of involvement in the kidnapping of Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, and mismanagement of the country’s reconstruction in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. Currently more than 606,000 Haitian immigrants reside in the U.S. Following the earthquake, Haiti was added to the U.S.’s Temporary Protected Status (TPS) list, where “beneficiaries are temporarily granted relief from deportation and given work authorization until their TPS designation expires.” Nearly 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. have qualified for the program. It has been extended through July 22, 2017, and resuming deportations without significant improvement to the country’s conditions would violate international human rights law on a number of grounds.

For the time being, Haitians are in a unique situation where they can bypass the designation of being considered economic migrants. Haiti has long been the poorest country in the Americas, and as a result, many of those who fled the country in fear of political persecution were written off as simply seeking better employment opportunities. A 2005 Congressional Report revealed that in November 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration violated international refugee law by sending back 538 Haitian migrants without verifying if they were eligible for asylum. The cold truth, however, is that when talking about a country like Haiti, where a majority of the population lives in extreme poverty and less than a quarter has access to safe water, it is barbarous to try and distinguish between political and economic violence.

Historically, the U.S. put emphasis on this distinction because it theoretically allowed immigration policy to be used as a tool to slow the spread of communism during the Cold War, as opposed to providing haven to those affected by poverty in the so-called emerging economies. After a number of failed attempts to dislodge the Castro regime, there were tens of thousands of Cubans who had relocated to the United States and the government needed a way to adjust their immigration status without sending them back to the country where they could be subject to persecution. The outcome was multiple pieces of legislature beginning with the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which created a legal framework for Cubans to immigrate. A few years prior, President Kennedy imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba that continues to impede the country’s prosperity today. The catch-22 is that while the embargo puts pressure on the Cuban economy in hopes of creating civil resistance to Castro’s government, the migration policy allows people to move out of the country easily.

In a phone interview, Cuban historian Michael Bustamante noted, “For opponents of the Cuban government, U.S. migration policy toward Cuba could be considered counter productive. Part of the policy was motivated by a humanitarian concern coming out of the Cold War, the logic being: there is a communist government and the people who want to leave there share our values so we should support them. But over the long term, immigration privileges for Cubans in the United States have also functioned as a safety valve. They allowed the Cuban government to export its opposition very efficiently.” After more than 50 years of roughly the same policies, Cuba is slowly beginning to liberalize its economy and diplomatic relations with the United States are starting to normalize. Yet many Cubans continue to leave for Miami in droves. Bustamante laments that even today, young Cubans often struggle to find incentives to stay in the country. “The legacy of migration as a safety valve is with us still,” he says. “Cubans who are unhappy with their circumstances, particularly young people, desire to emigrate.”

There is an ongoing debate amongst Cuban-American politicians about whether or not the Cuban Adjustment Act and subsequent executive actions, like the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy, have become obsolete and should be repealed. Much of this debate is oriented around the belief that migration from Cuba is benefiting the current regime by pumping capital into the largely state-run economy via remittances. It is, however, unlikely that there will be any major changes to the policy in the near future, mostly due to what Bustamante calls “political inertia,” the idea that because the policy has been in place for so long and Cuba is not currently one of Congress’s geopolitical priorities, there is little reason to abandon the status quo.

With that said, the current policy does give Cuban immigrants an unfair advantage over other migrant groups in the region, but one of the valuable lessons from a half century of U.S.-Cuban migration policies is that a compassionate approach to immigration that includes permission to work legally increases the chances that newcomers will participate in the economy in dynamic ways. Cubans currently make up more over a third of Miami’s population, and since the 1980s the city has become one of the best in the country for new entrepreneurial activity.

Politically, it is not currently feasible to extend the Cuban policy to other migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, but there are a number of alternative ways the United States can reshape its regional immigration policies. One of the major takeaways from decades of U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere is that despite anti-immigrant sentiments at home and changes in domestic policies, migration is almost always driven by conditions abroad. If U.S. policymakers truly intend to slow regional migration, then the State Department has to repair ties with many of the Latin American and Caribbean states that it has historically taken advantage of.

Security concerns and systemic violence throughout Central America are cold reminders that without major reforms to the U.S. prison system, the country will continue to feed transnational criminal syndicates. At this point, however, the problem is far too complicated to resolve through domestic policy suggestions alone. There will have to be a coordinated dialogue between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States that goes beyond building more prisons or securing more police and military aid in order to bring about regional stability. Gangs in the region have become political actors that in some instances have more power than labor unions and it will be difficult to use a “mano dura” or iron-fist approach to eliminate the budding relationships between politicians and criminal organizations. With gangs like MS-13 potentially taking a bigger role in wholesale drug trafficking and bringing in unprecedented amounts of money as a result there has never been a more critical time for the United States to lead efforts toward global drug policy reform in the United Nations. The opportunity was missed at the UN Special Assembly on Drug Policy that took place this past April and it will surely come up again in the next four years.

Additionally, policies like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are short-term tools that offer significant relief to those escaping horrific situations, but it is a designation that can be terminated at any time. It is also only applied on an extremely limited basis. Currently, TPS is limited to immigrants from thirteen countries in the whole world. For policymakers, immigration reform needs to be about more than “border security” or a “pathway to citizenship,” and should push the United States to be a cooperative regional partner. Immigration is one of the most complex and controversial issues in the current election cycle. Ironically, decades of U.S. policy is responsible for driving the so-called immigration “problem.” The upside is that the United States’ options are not limited by possibility, but rather U.S. politicians’ inability to shake their old ways of thinking.

Robert Gordon is a law student and freelance journalist based in New York City.