Jonathan Blanks

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent threat to pull
grants from “sanctuary cities” should come as no
surprise to those who spent any time listening to the rhetoric of
then-candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Doing so, you
might have thought that a very disproportionate number of
America’s problems are caused by “illegal
immigrants”—people who lack the legal qualifications to
live and work in this country. It is to remedy this apparent
problem that President Trump wants to increase immigration
enforcement and build a wall on the southern border of the United
States. Even if we put aside the enormous price tag to build and
man a border wall of that size and the logistical nightmare
required to successfully identify, detain, and deport the estimated
11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, these laws will
not likely fix the problems they are meant to solve. Indeed,
history shows that increased immigration enforcement and other
measures meant to discourage immigration have unintended
consequences that can actually increase the number of undocumented
immigrants and decrease overall public safety.

History shows that
increased immigration enforcement has often had unintended
consequences, ones these laws are supposedly there to

Take, for example, the border wall. What walls the United States
already has on its southern border were built to keep unauthorized
people out of the country, and Trump’s proposed expansion
will, according to him, be better than what we have now. But as
Douglas Massey noted in 2015, when the current walls and
enforcement militarized the border in the 1980s and ’90s, it
disrupted decades of “circular” migration. Before the
buildup, Mexican migrants would typically come to the United States
to work and then return home voluntarily, so at any given time the
“illegal” population was relatively small. However, by
making the trip across the border more difficult—and thus
more expensive and dangerous for unauthorized persons—more
migrants stayed in the United States. In effect, the current walls
have been much better at keeping unauthorized immigrants
in the United States than it has at keeping them out.

And as my colleague Alex Nowrasteh has written, a large reason we
have so many unauthorized immigrants in the first place is that the
government shut down programs that allowed people to come and work
legally. Among these was the Bracero program that allowed seasonal
migration for labor:

From 1942 to 1964, nearly five million Mexican workers legally
entered and worked in the United States on Bracero, returning home
at the end of their seasonal employment. At the height of the
program, half a million workers came in annually to work on
American farms. In its main failing as a bill, the 1965 Act did not
create a similarly flexible migrant work visa and also piled on
more wage regulations for the few economic migrants allowed,
consigning these migrants to work as illegal immigrants.

Bracero was not without its flaws, but the fact remains that
when given legal means to make money in the United States,
immigrants took advantage and played by the rules. Our current
laws, on the other hand, prevent most unskilled immigrants from
coming here legally and don’t allow those already here to
go to the back of the line” to do so. Our
current system is incapable of meeting the labor demands of the
American economy, and the laws of economics usually trump the laws
of Congress. Thus, millions of good, hardworking people live in the
shadows in violation of inapt, antiquated laws so that they can
make a living and keep the American economy going.

Some of the sensationalist rhetoric around undocumented
immigrants has also focused on crime and violence, very often on
rare and horrific acts of violencecaused by
individuals here illegally. But a wide
range of data show
that increased violent crime rates are not
correlated with increased immigration and, indeed, may be inversely
correlated. In plain English, an increase in immigrant populations
does not result in crime increases and, in many cases, may result
in crime rate declines. Almost all available data show that
immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born
Americans, and violent crimes in particular. Although no one can be
sure exactly why these data show this, it makes intuitive sense
that people who self-select to leave their loved ones to find work
in a new country would be less likely to violate the laws and norms
that would jeopardize the opportunities they sacrificed so much

Again, however, certain federal law enforcement practices
undermine the principles they are supposedly there to uphold. In
recent weeks, federal immigration officials have seized or prepared
to seize people at courthouses who may be in violation of
immigration laws. Perhaps the most famous case came from El Paso,
Texas when federal agents detained a woman who was filing a protective order against a
domestic abuser
. Some people close to the case believe the
woman’s abuser was the person who tipped off federal
authorities to her court appearance.

Since the El Paso case, court watchers and lawyers have noticed
that domestic violence and sexual assault complaints are measurably
down in Latino areas in cities like Los Angeles and Denver. Crime victims who fear
deportation—or perhaps deportation of innocent loved
ones—are reluctant or unwilling to come forward to identify
their abusers. This chilling effect most directly harms the victims
of crimes, not the perpetrators, who may not even themselves be

Police officers cannot do their jobs effectively without
cooperation from victims, witnesses, and other members of the
general public. One detective complained to the Los Angeles Times
that “I can’t get justice for people, because all of a
sudden, I’m losing my witnesses or my victims because
they’re afraid that talking to me is going to lead to them
getting deported.” Nevertheless, immigration authorities
continue to subvert the priorities of local law enforcement,
including posing as local police officers to gain entry into
immigrants’ homes
, which law enforcement officials called
“corrosive…to public safety.”

According to an internal memorandum, the Trump Administration
has explored lowering hiring standards for agents to dramatically
increase staffing at Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs and Border
Protection (CBP). If history is a guide, lower standards will lead
to increased problems of misconduct and corruption, due to the
intense pressure to smuggle drugs, guns, money, and people across
the American border, often with the assistance of bribed or
otherwise compromised agents. Jay Ahern, a deputy commissioner of
CBP in the George W. Bush Administration, told Foreign Policy, “We
actually lived through this…If you start lowering standards, the
organization pays for it for the next decade, two, or three.”
The federal government has released studies that indicate the
highest incidents of misconduct and corruption in CBP happen
at the southwestern U.S. border
. More people on guard does not
necessarily mean better border security.

Federal immigration enforcement policy has been working at
cross-purposes with its stated goals for decades, and the Trump
Administration seems dedicated to the most counter-productive
policies to those ends. The walls and laws that were created to
keep people out have kept far more undocumented people in the
country than there had been in years past. Trump wants more laws
and walls. Yet the overzealous tactics to target victims of crimes
for possible deportation poison the relationship between local
police and those they are sworn to protect and serve, allowing more
crime to happen and more violent criminals to escape justice.
Trump’s Department of Justice is pushing the envelope of
aggressive enforcement. And to implement a hasty increase of
immigration officials on the border would be to repeat a recent
mistake that could lead to more problems of bribery, smuggling, and
corruption among federal law enforcement, thus diminishing border
security. Trump appears to be pushing for quantity at the very high
price of officer quality.

Would it be too much to ask to make immigration policy sane

is a research associate in the Cato Institute’s Project
on Criminal Justice and managing editor of

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