The Immigration “Crisis” Isn’t What Trump Wants You to Believe

The Southwestern sectors of the U.S. Border Patrol reported a total of 283 border crossing deaths for fiscal year 2018. It counted 298 deaths in FY 2017, 329 in FY 2016, and 251 in FY 2015. The numbers reflect just those migrants whose remains were spotted. 

Under the Donald Trump’s administration’s border policies, asylum applications are “metered” (that is, few people actually get to apply); immigrants must “remain in Mexico” for a year or more waiting for their asylum hearing date; and applicants must show that they applied for and were denied asylum in all “safe third countries” that they passed through on the way to the United States (that is, the very places they are fleeing). As a direct consequence of Trump’s policies, the refugee families seeking to escape the violence and privations of the Central American Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador increasingly are being diverted out into parched and remote stretches of desert to attempt their crossing into the United States.

Under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy in the spring and summer of 2018, over 2,700 children, many under five years old, were separated from their parents by U.S. immigration officials. Since the declared end to the policy, 900 more children have been taken from their parents.

These are the actions of “our” government.

There is an urgent need to construct humane U.S. immigration policies. In doing so, however, we will need to consider the population changes that are quickly reshaping the overall situation in both the Northern Triangle and the United States, developments too often missing in most debates.

Immigrants from Mexico Have All but Stopped Coming

For Mexico, economic and demographic factors have come together to reduce out-migration. The U.S. economic recession of 2008, coupled with a fairly steadily growing Mexican economy, at least until this year, has kept more Mexican workers from emigrating. At the same time, slowing population growth in Mexico has gradually reduced pressure on their labor market. These days, return migration to Mexico exceeds immigration to the United States.

Whereas young Mexican workers once made up the majority of unauthorized immigrants to the United States, today most are families from the Northern Triangle.

  According to research published by the Pew Research Center and Migration Policy Institute, more than half of those apprehended these days by U.S. immigration authorities are coming from the Northern Triangle nations: Guatemala (nearly 120,000 a year), Honduras (nearly 80,000 annually), and El Salvador (just over 30,000 a year). These arrivals, however, have not offset the decline in Mexican immigration.

Overall, according to the Congressional Research Service, total U.S. border apprehensions hit a 45-year low in 2017.

Central American Emigration is Not Going to Continue

Although brutal conditions in the Northern Triangle continue to send people from their homes, demographic trends in the region mean that immigration from the Northern Triangle will soon resemble the Mexican situation. 

Salvadoran migration is fading; since 2016, when U.S. border apprehensions of Salvadorans peaked at 18% of the total, the percentage of Salvadorans among total apprehensions has dropped to now just 10% of the total. 

  In El Salvador, the birth rate is steadily falling, dropping from very high rates in the 1960s to very low rates now. The Salvadoran cohort of young men 18-25 years old is becoming a smaller portion of the population with each passing year. 

Guatemala and Honduras have younger populations and still higher population growth rates than does El Salvador, but this situation is changing fast. 

Honduras is moving in the same direction as El Salvador, although it is not yet as far along in its demographic transition. In Honduras in 1990, 16.5% of the population was under ten years old, but by 2017 the percentage had dropped to 10.1%. 

In Guatemala, the demographic transition has been much slower to get underway, but even there, population growth is tapering off. In 1960, Guatemala’s population was growing by 3% a year (thus doubling every 23 years), but today it has slowed to just below 2% a year (doubling in 35 years).

In the long run, these demographic forces are unstoppable. Before long, as the population there turns grayer, migration from all of the Northern Triangle nations will slow down significantly. Moreover, the combined population of the Northern Triangle nations, 34 million, is just not large enough to produce many more waves of immigrants. The current refugee “crisis” that the United States is dealing with is temporary.

The U. S. Economy Increasingly Depends on Immigrant Workers

For the U. S. economy, it is not good news that Central Americans will soon stop coming, because America needs immigrant workers. 

As journalist Alexia Fernández Campbell has reported for Vox, at the beginning of 2019, there were 7.6 million job openings in the United States, but just 6.5 million people looking for jobs. Meanwhile, the U.S. population growth rate has fallen to its lowest level in 80 years. A slowdown in immigration will bring a slowdown in U.S. GDP growth.

The biggest areas of U.S. employment need are the very vacancies that immigrants commonly fill: home health aides, restaurant workers, and hotel staff. Today unauthorized immigrants make up about 5% of the U.S. workforce. Undocumented workers account for about a quarter of the hotel housekeeping staff and half of the farm laborers in the United States. 

Today, too much of the discussion about these matters is poisoned by Trump’s nativist narrative, a mix of cruelty, racism, and opinions that seize upon negative anecdotal examples as illustrative of the whole. 

We must reject this. We must reject Trump’s policies above all because they are inhumane, but also because they actually harm our own economic interests. We must consider the best available evidence and remake our immigration policies so that they best reflect this country’s wisdom and compassion.

This piece is adapted from Pineo’s contribution to DSA’s Socialist Forum (Fall 2019).