Political campaign season is starting to ramp up (not that it ever really ended), so we’re going to hear a lot more about illegal immigration and the border wall. Already, the national Republican Party has started running ads proclaiming the only way to fix America’s immigration “crisis” is to finish the border wall.
We can see why politicians like that idea: It’s something physical, tangible, that they can present to their constituents and say, “Look what I did.” Practical (and effective) immigration policy is nebulous; good policy is not as visual and grand — and it’s less popular with the party’s base. Plus, the new spin is that a wall will somehow stop human and drug trafficking over the border. (It won’t.)
The political talking points like to tout the 2.2 million “encounters” Border Patrol had with immigrants along the southern border in Fiscal Year 2022. However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the first to admit that figure is inflated: “Encounters” encompasses any interaction with immigrants, and because Title 42 expelled people so quickly, many of the encounters recorded were multiple interactions with the same people. Also, the number of encounters isn’t the same as the number of people who entered the country and stayed illegally.
You’d get a better idea of how many unauthorized immigrants there are by looking at people who entered legally on visas and didn’t leave. The Department of Homeland Security reported over 707,000 visitors to the U.S. in FY 2022 overstayed their visas and are “Suspected In-Country Overstays.” But that’s still only about 3% of all visa holders; the rest returned home without incident.
Then there’s the “why” they come: work. According to the Cato Institute (a right-leaning think tank), “The wage gain for immigrants is already a 4‑-fold to 10-‐fold increase … which includes the higher cost of living in the United States. … There simply are not enough temporary work visas available in enough sectors of the U.S. economy for legal migrant workers to meet the demand of the U.S. labor market, so illegal migrant workers meet it.”
Which brings us to the human trafficking element. As long as there is a promise of work, migrants will come; and as long as there are limited (and slow) paths to legal entry, migrants will come illegally. It’s that dynamic traffickers exploit: They offer false promises of work and a fast-tracked path to get into the U.S. — sometimes even opportunities for citizenship.
When someone is desperate to escape — be it extreme poverty, violence or natural disaster — and standing between them and perceived safety is a bureaucratic labyrinth that takes months to years to navigate, illegal entry doesn’t just seem like the best option — it seems like the only option.
A wall won’t stop that. Not so long as there are boats and planes and people desperate enough to try anything. What we need instead is a streamlined system that focuses less on catching people and more on moving them quickly through the legal immigration and asylum processes.
So when a politician says they want to finish the wall, tell them you’d rather see the money go toward more social workers, translators, immigration courts, etc. Because that’s how we’ll fix this crisis: with a better system, not with a wall.