Confounding his critics, President Trump has already built his big beautiful border wall. Illegal immigration on the southern border has plummeted. Mexico didn’t pay for the wall — nor did U.S. taxpayers.
Trump’s new barrier is a virtual wall. Nothing newfangled, yet it is the strongest of all possible barriers. It is a psychological blockade called deterrence — the deterrent effect of actually enforcing immigration law.
Government immigration statistics through June and recently reported anecdotes from south of the border reveal the marvels achieved by deterrence.
Since the President issued his executive orders reversing his predecessor’s blanket exemption of most illegal immigrants from enforcement of immigration laws, attempted illegal entries on the southern border have dropped precipitously.
Homeland Security reports that apprehensions have plummeted from an annual average about 500,000 over the last five fiscal years to an annualized rate of 235,000 in five months under Trump.
Compared to the same period last year, “the border is down 78%,” as Trump said in his immigration speech last week on Long Island. Obviously, these numbers don’t include those who succeed in crossing the border illegally, but, no doubt, there’s been a proportional drop.
The dramatic deterrent effect is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from Honduras in a recent New York Times feature titled “Fearful immigrants Stop Short of the U.S. Border.”
Central America has been the origin of many illegal border crossers in recent years. Roberto, who had intended to cross illegally, said “Every day, it’s on the news. People are being deported every day.”
Roberto aborted his plans, saying “Imagine paying (a smuggler) and losing everything” — reaching the U.S., “only to be detained and deported.”
Eswin Fuentes, passed up $12,000 in smuggler’s fees arranged by his U.S.-based sister. Juan Perez passed on $8,500 lined up before he aborted his trip for fear of losing that investment.
A smuggler named Marcos has taken only one “client” over the U.S. border since Trump’s inauguration vs. “one to two groups each month” last year.
Trump’s law enforcement policy has turned illegal entry into a bad investment proposition for these Hondurans.
This is exactly how deterrence is supposed to work. Deterrence operates by increasing the perceived risk and cost of apprehension for potential violators so that they refrain from breaking the law.
As reflected in Roberto’s remarks, the dramatic drop in attempted border crossings is the result of heavy media coverage of Trump’s executive orders and increased arrest and detention activity.
However, the annualized rate of deportations since February has trailed the 240,000 pace for the whole of fiscal 2016.
Inevitably, the media excitement will dissipate. So too will deterrence, unless deportations increase sufficiently to handle those apprehended at the southern border — including both those detained and those not detained nor immediately returned over the border — as well as to deter those who succeed in crossing the border illegally, and, additionally, to begin to resolve the legacy of past nonenforcement.
It is unlikely that 240,000 annual deportations will be sufficient with southern border apprehensions of about 500,000 in recent years and as many as 200,000 entering illegally along the southern border in fiscal 2015, as estimated by the Institute for Defense Analysis in a 2016 study for Homeland Security.
Then, there’s the colossal problem of legacy nonenforcement. There are currently about two million illegal immigrants on the “non-detained docket,” a list of those apprehended but not detained or deported. Unless the deportation rate increases, this backlog will only grow, undermining the notion of deterrence.
About one million on the docket have received a final removal order from an immigration court judge, including about 175,000 convicted criminals. If those orders go unenforced, basic respect for the law will go out the window along with any vestige of deterrence.
Today, no one — not even Donald “they-all-gotta-go” Trump — advocates a wholesale roundup or mass deportations. However, virtually all opinion polls show Americans want the southern border secured, and the deterrent effect of deportations accomplishes just that.
Otherwise, Roberto, Eswin and Juan in Honduras will reactivate their illegal migration plans, and business for Marcos the smuggler will pick up again.
The administration has requested resources from Congress to move illegal entrants along the path from apprehension to detention to adjudication (there’s a backlog of about 610,000 pending cases) to deportation.
With these resources, Trump’s virtual barrier can be even more effective than the 20-foot high wall he’s been talking about.
As appeared in Investor’s Business Daily on Aug. 1, 2017.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.