WASHINGTON – President Trump is right. There’s a crisis on the southern border.
The existence of the crisis is as obvious as its cause: Trump. He didn’t single-handedly create this mess, but he definitely made it worse.
He pursued not a policy but an instinct, following emotion rather than empiricism. Now, an immigration policy of toughness and fear has backfired in tangible ways.
Customs and Border Protection reported last week that 103,492 migrants were apprehended or turned away along the southern border in March, the largest number in 12 years and more than quadruple the 23,557 in Trump’s first full month as president. The Obama administration never did this poorly.
Fully 60% of those apprehended are families or unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, part of a more than 370% increase in families trying to enter the country over the past six months.
The underlying source of the migration – violence in Central America – wasn’t Trump’s doing. But he compounded the trouble. The bellicose talk of wall-building and zero tolerance gave migrants an incentive to hurry to the U.S. The 2018 campaign hysteria about caravans and the country’s limited ability to stop them served as an advertisement for asylum for would-be migrants.
The attempt to crack down on asylum, including holding applicants in Mexico, encouraged more migrants to attempt illegal crossings. The profusion of enforcement crackdowns strained and distracted personnel. The government shutdown and unstable management slowed the government’s response to the migration surge. The president’s recent decision to end anti-violence and anti-poverty assistance to three Central American countries will worsen the root cause of migration.
How much of the current mess would have happened without Trump is unknowable. But, by his own standard, he deserves all the blame, because he took all the credit for a decline in border crossings in 2017. “We’ve already cut illegal immigration at the southern border by 61%,” he said in early 2017. “You know, the border is down 78%. Under past administrations, the border didn’t go down -- it went up,” he boasted that summer.
Now it’s up more than 500% from 2017’s low point.
The immigration experience, I fear, will become the pattern for Trump’s other policy adventures. In economic and national security policy, he has cast aside long-standing policies and precedents embraced by both parties, dismissing expertise under the belief that he alone can fix things – that his “gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain.” The consequences might not be felt until Trump is out of office.
For immigration, though, the effects are rapid. The president’s sole solution – Build the wall! – isn’t effective against those seeking asylum. Asylum seekers typically come through legal ports of entry–- or at least they did until the fear of being held in appalling conditions in Mexico spurred many to attempt illegal crossings. Last week, a federal judge blocked the Trump policy of holding asylum seekers in Mexico, and Trump’s press secretary responded by describing the judge as a “liberal activist.”
Trump is thrashing about for a solution: an emergency declaration that takes funds from the military for a border wall; a threat to shut the border entirely; and an attempt to blame President Obama.
The president could do something useful, such as curbing the southward flow of guns that has worsened the violence in Central America. Instead, he continues to blame the migrants for drugs and violence, even though most are families with children. He also could work with Congress to change asylum laws and make it easier to return illegal immigrants to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. And he could work with those countries and Mexico to deter migration and reduce its causes.
But this would mean seeking help from the same people he disparaged as he went it alone on the border, aggravating the problem. It would be an acknowledgment that he alone couldn’t fix it. In fact, he broke it.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.