In the summer of 1992, I was serving two different positions in the Bush 41 administration. The first as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense – overseeing Drug Enforcement Plans and Support. In the second position, I was the Deputy Chairman of the Border Interdiction Committee, the nation’s senior policy organization on border issues. I had traveled to San Diego to inspect the work being done by Department of Defense (DoD) personnel on repairing and upgrading the existing border fence in the San Diego Sector.
Former Congressman Duncan L. Hunter had placed an “earmark” in the 1992 Defense Authorization Act requiring DoD to use counter-narcotics funding to rebuild the fence. To this day, I believe we did the best we could with the resources that we had, but it was an inelegant and unsightly solution. We stationed Army Engineers and Navy SEABEEs on the border for more than a year welding sheets of steel runway matting to steel posts sunk in concrete. The project stretched across Otay Mesa from Imperial Beach and up into the hills east of San Diego.
The Otay Mesa border crossing separating San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico is the busiest border crossing in the world. Rebuilding the fence in the Otay Mesa area made it somewhat more difficult for illegal crossings but did nothing to help address the much larger problem – a Band-Aid, of sorts.
A man named Gus De La Vina was the Sector Chief at the time, later becoming the first Mexican-American to head the entire Border Patrol. He was an affable bear of a man with a booming voice who understood the Southwest Border like no one else. As we drove the dirt road on the U.S. side of the Border, I observed dozens of mostly young men hanging over the top of the fence looking at us and into the U.S. I asked Gus “Let me get this straight, these guys are all waiting for an opportunity to illegally cross the border and they don’t intend to come back?”
We had approached the point where the border road abruptly ended at the Tijuana River – less of a river and more of a huge, open, concrete culvert strewn with raw sewage and all forms of refuse. There were about half a dozen young men gathered on the U.S side at the point where the fence ended.
Gus asked me, “Do you want to talk to them?” I responded “sure”. We exited the well-marked Border Patrol vehicle, with Gus seeming like an imposing figure with a large hat and prominent holstered pistol. The young men seemed unfazed.
Gus asked them how they were doing and where they were going. “We’re doing fine,” they said in Spanish. “We are headed to Los Angeles.”
“Why are you going to Los Angeles?”, Gus asked. They stated that the economy in Mexico was very bad and they were going to Los Angeles to get jobs. Gus then asked them “When do you plan on heading to Los Angeles?” One of them simply pointed to a Border Patrol vehicle parked at the bottom of the Tijuana River; “As soon as those guys go to lunch.”
Although I had been to the border many times, that exchange brought home to me the futility of America’s appalling decades-long history of border policy that has ranged from neglect at best to a cruel political cudgel at worst. For decades, U.S. immigration policy has oscillated in its approach to various migrant populations. For example, Cuban migrants were “political” refugees, yet Haitian migrants were “economic” refugees. These are blurry distinctions even though they both arrived on our shores in the same ramshackle boats.
The Biden Administration finds itself in a similar position to the Clinton Administration during its early days. Bill Clinton, during his 1992 presidential campaign was critical of U.S. policy on Haiti, which resulted in a massive wave of Haitian refugees that washed across the Florida straits for months. We still don’t know how many lives were lost during the treacherous passage.
Joe Biden, similarly, implied during his 2020 campaign an easing of U.S. policy on Southwest Border asylum seekers, which resulted in the current surge in migrants, many of them unaccompanied minors.
American politicians are largely clueless when it comes to understanding the potential impact of even the most off-hand comment regarding immigration policy. Potential migrants living in deplorable conditions around the world view America as an idyllic place and are constantly alert to any news that might be construed as offering even the faintest hope of asylum.
The “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with Mexico, pose a particularly intractable problem. Decades of civil war, gang violence, drug trafficking, along with weak and corrupt central governments have all led to populations beset with hopelessness.
The Trump administration’s unwelcoming posture regarding asylum seekers was painful to listen to. It was peppered with crude, exaggerated and cruel rhetoric. However, at the end of the day, it did serve to discourage many would-be migrants. Still, even Trump’s hardline approach was only a temporary way to halt entries and does little to provide a long-term solution.
Both Congress and the Administration need to stop using the chaos at our land and sea frontiers as a political football. Determined migrants will continue to try to come to the United States as long as conditions in their native countries make it impossible for them to continue to live there. They will continue to risk their lives crossing rugged and dangerous territory and board makeshift rafts to transit treacherous seas. No wall, no matter how high, will deter them.
U.S. immigration policy needs to shift its focus from bolstering barriers to migration to helping alleviate the conditions that drive people to become asylum seekers. Secure borders are important, but they will continue to be stressed until the tide of asylum seekers is turned. The only way that will happen is if conditions improve in their home countries.
Following World War II, the United States helped Europe rebuild itself from the devastation of the war. It was a massive, costly, multi-year effort but we knew that a stable and successful Europe was very much in our national interest. By the same token, a stable and successful Central America is equally in our national interest.
America’s immigration crisis poses a profound threat to our national and economic security. One could argue that dangerous and unstable nations on our very doorstep pose as much of a threat as North Korean missiles. Promoting economic development, the rule of law, and basic infrastructure in Central America is vital to our national security and is the only thing that will serve as a long-term solution to the migrant crisis. The time has come for a new “Marshall Plan” for Mexico and Central America. Nothing short of that will work.