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Buses Fuel the Migration Fire

Guest: Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute

The governors of Texas and Arizona are busing thousands of migrants to Washington, DC and New York. Ahead of the US midterm elections, politicians keep using immigration as a wedge issue, adding fuel to an already hot fire.  

Immigration seems unsolvable in the United States. Most immigrants enter the United States legally, but there is also a real crisis at the border. The number of immigrants crossing the border has been spiking since at least 2013, haunting several presidents. The Trump administration’s border restrictions were inhumane. The Biden administration took a friendlier stance, but border traffic has increased exponentially. To make a political point — and burnish their right-wing credentials — the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona (and now Florida) are sending tens of thousands of migrants to Democratic-party-aligned hotspots. Beyond the political stunt, border states are overwhelmed by the numbers of incoming migrants. How does this issue get solved?

We attempt to tackle these hard questions with our guest Andrew Selee, President of the Migration Policy Institute, a leading global think tank on the issue. We began by asking for an overview of the complicated of immigration situation and the current border crisis. Selee said, “One can think, as I do, that immigration is generally good for the country and it has been one of the pillars that have made the United States successful, and at the same time [one can] worry that whatever system we had at the border, which has never been very robust to begin with, has really broken down. We’re not making decisions in any sort of sensible way about who comes across.”

There are unprecedented numbers of people attempting to cross the border, with many deciding to make a dangerous trek north because of violence, lack of opportunity, and climate change. There are three converging factors driving people north from Central and South America in new ways. Selee explained, “We knew 10 years ago that [Central Americans] would start coming, the same way Mexicans did before them. It’s been exacerbated by violence, climate change and lots of other things. Those are momentary things, but they’re big momentary things. And then you have what’s going on with the COVID recession and this interesting migration of the precarious middle class that lost their jobs during the crisis. And you have those three things converging at the same time.”

While there is a real border crisis right now, there are deep-rooted systemic problems within our immigration system. Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked,It seems like the system is completely weighed down by failure. How do we right that wrong?” Selee answered, “there’s a deeper issue, which is that our immigration laws really are based on a change that was made in 1965. 1965 is an eternity away in terms of the American labor market and the composition of American society. So, what we do really need is to rethink our immigration system in a huge way. We’ve got 11 million people who have no documents but are living in the country permanently, and there’s no way they’re going back. So, in an ideal world, what we would do is restart and try to come up with what is it we need in terms of our future labor market. To begin to think of immigration as one element in that. How do we bring people who are already here into the labor market in better ways?”

The fuel to the fire is the recent busing of thousands of migrants to democratic-leaning cities and states. The Governors of Texas, Arizona, and Florida have put over 10,000 migrants on buses and planes to prove a political point. How does this political stunt help them? Selee explained, “Forget Florida. Florida is not a border state. But Texas and Arizona are facing a real humanitarian crisis, both for the migrants themselves and also for some of the communities on the border. Interestingly, border communities tend to be the most open to migration. But border authorities and officers are letting lots of people come through because they are overwhelmed. It does create a sense of loss of control. The Governors calling attention to a problem that border communities are feeling is a real problem right now. Which is that they’re not getting enough help.”

Over 10,000 migrants have shown up in cities like Washington DC, New York, and Chicago. What should these cities do to make life better for these migrants and how do they get help to move forward? Selee proposed, “there are some models here- the city of El Paso for example is looking at trying to help bus people to their destinations. They are sympathetic to the immigrants coming, but they also don’t want people sleeping in the streets. So, they’re trying to figure out how they can direct people to where they’re actually going rather than just to cities that they’re politically opposed to. It’s important to note that most people that cross the border know where they’re going. Busing actually can be a positive solution to the immediate chaos. It doesn’t solve the system, which needs different remedies, but it does help with the immediate chaos and the sense of loss of control in border communities.”

To clarify for our listeners, we asked about the migrants that are coming. Selee answered, “It really is a mix of people from throughout the Southern hemisphere who are coming. Almost all of these people know where they’re going. They usually have either family or friends somewhere in the United States and they are headed to a specific destination where someone has told them they’re going to receive them. And in many cases, […] these people probably have a job waiting for them.”

And their visa status? Selee said, “It is confusing. […] Actually, a lot of these people have a piece of paper that says, at least for a period of time, they’re allowed to stay in the country and apply for or wait for their case to be heard. Sometimes they don’t have anything, but once they apply, they do. It’s a mix of statuses and we don’t even know what the numbers are on this, to be honest with you.”

To end the podcast, Téa Ivanovic asked about the elephant in the room – the American political fire around immigration. She asked, “With the midterms in November and the presidential elections in 2024, what type of rhetoric can we expect from both sides? Selee answered, “I think we can expect it to get worse. I think people have discovered that immigration inflames passions. It inflames people’s fears about work. It plays into people’s fears about demographic change and about lack of legality, on one side. And on the other side, it brings out humanitarian concerns and feelings of solidarity.”

Then our guest continued to explain what he would like to see once we get passed the election cycles to – what he hopes can be – pragmatic system reform. He listed the things that are needed to reform the system. Selee said, “One is, how do we fix our asylum system? We should be taking their cases with asylum officers and making decisions in a few months. Number two, how do we expand legal pathways? Let’s use [the H2 visas] for what we can to try and give people a legal option to come. Three is how you do enforcement better in more humane ways, but also more effectively. Four is how do we actually support [other] countries that are hosting migrants? So, they don’t re-migrate and come north. And five, the easiest population of all the 11 million people that are here without documents to talk about are the ones that have DACA, the young people who came as children. There is broad agreement on both sides of the aisle, that those are people who need legal security.”

What will it take to move past the political rhetoric to real policy solutions? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 135