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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 7 June 2024

This week, new rules to cap immigration and return enforcement powers to the police and immigration officials have been proposed in America. What might surprise readers is who is behind these new moves... Martin explores the vexed issue of migration and border control...

After the minor distraction of Donald Trump’s criminal conviction last week, politics in the US has returned to a more predictable topic – immigration and border security.

Whether you are a ‘bleeding heart’ liberal or a ‘hang’em high’ conservative, this is the issue on which the election could be won or lost.

For a third consecutive month, immigration and border security ranked highest on the list of priorities for US voters. The populist picture is that the Southern Border is porous, and the political rhetoric suggests those who are entering the US via this route are a problem. Canadians not so much apparently.

To share the pain, Southern Republican Governors have been loading the migrants onto buses and driving them to the city limits of their Northern Democrat counterparts, who in turn have been calling on the Federal Government to fund the shelters and help the nation’s biggest cities deal with what is deemed to be a crisis.

Trump has the lead in every poll on the issue.

Amongst his fans, his long-standing posturing about building a wall has been further enhanced by some startling statistics since Biden succeeded him in the White House and, ill-advisedly, reversed some of his border controls.

In 2021, the year Biden took office, monthly arrivals consistently exceeded 200,000 migrants. In 2023, a record 2.4 million people arrived at the border.

Americans are pissed, especially those in critical election states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

Biden knows this could cost him the election and, with less than 5 months until the General Election, he has had to move fast.

Therefore, this week, he announced new initiatives.

On Tuesday he signed an executive order allowing him to close the border with Mexico during periods of heightened migrant crossings.

This order will prevent migrants who cross the border illegally from being eligible to claim asylum which makes it easier for them to be quickly deported back to Mexico or their home countries.

On the surface it is a tough stance, a political strongman’s move. That’s how it’s being positioned at least; While the House Republicans dallied and blocked action on the border, Big Joe stepped up and slammed the gates shut.

But as ever, not quite.

The executive order kicks in when migrant numbers hit certain pre-approved levels, but that trigger point is way higher than the current numbers of migrants crossing, largely because Mexico has stepped up its border security efforts.

The right squealed that it was ‘too little too late’ and pointed to the recent murder of a student by an undocumented Venezuelan migrant as evidence – pledging to make it the issue of the first TV debate between the two wannabe Presidents.

And the left gnashed their teeth too. The American Civil Liberties Union, the human rights NGO, said it intended to “challenge this decree in court.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t it seems.

But that is because this is about optics, how the electorate reacts.

The ‘faux outrage’ and litigious challenges are part of the performance, while the reality of America, her immigration story, and her economy doesn’t get a look in.

The benefit of a steady flow of immigrants is what has given the US and its mega-economy the leg up on other western nations who also share shifting and aging demographics.

Not that anyone points this out – there aren’t any votes in it, apparently.

Even though America is at near full employment, there are still more jobs available than people to fill them. For every dozen vacancies there are only ten American workers available. That is a drag on growth.

Add to that, Americans aren’t having enough babies to keep the population stable. The latest US fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman, when the number needs to be higher than 2 births each.

With jobs unfilled and the population shrinking, immigration is vital to keep the economy moving. Today, just under 19% of all American workers were born outside of the US. That percentage is even higher in industries like healthcare, hospitality and janitorial services.

But in elections, politicians don’t – or won’t – share these facts.

While the mayors and governors from both political parties are making great show of their indignance at these new arrivals showing up on their patch, they are also asking Federal Government to fast-track work visas for the migrants to fill the employment gaps in their cities and towns.

The irony that finding work is exactly why the majority of migrants made the long, arduous, dangerous and costly journey to America in the first place seems to be lost on them.

I don’t expect Trump and his supporters to embrace this thinking, after all, jingoistic xenophobia is baked into their election plans. But I would hope Biden and those in the centre ground could put an arm around these ideas. There have to be some votes there, surely.

But America is struggling to have this balanced debate.

It is true that policies to protect migrants and asylum seekers are necessary and well meaning, but an obvious reality of millions of undocumented people arriving without checks and official papers, some are going to be unwelcome guests.

But not all.

At last count, there were more than 350,000 undocumented Mexican and Guatemalans in Chicago alone. That is a significant chunk of the workforce and their collective contribution to the economy is significant.  Moving these workers to a legal and legitimate status would benefit everyone, raise additional taxes via higher wages and reduce exploitation, enhance workplace safety, and offer a greater sense of belonging and community.

There has to be a system that regulates and controls immigration. There need to be a process or system which allows long-term undocumented workers to get legal quickly, and equally return those who are a risk to our communities, or simply here to exploit opportunities.

But balance isn’t a vote winner.

Democrats in New York – one of the most liberal cities in USA – have floated legislation to end Sanctuary City status, removing the rules which prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) receiving cooperation from city officials and police departments in tracking down and returning illegal migrants.

I can see the sense in repealing that, but it doesn’t have the necessary pathways to citizenship written in to balance it out.

What America really needs is comprehensive immigration policy.

It needs a system that manages the applications and responds to the shifting patterns of migration – from parent and extended family visas, young males as economic migrants, and the largest proportion of migrants today – families seeking asylum.

But when the public has entrenched views, only the bravest politicians will raise the matter.

As a consequence, the issue of immigration seems destined to be treated like gun control, health care reform and drugs policy – filed under ‘Too Difficult to Pull Off’.

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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