Zack Blumberg: Immigration is not a standalone issue

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 8:05pm

In his time as president, Donald Trump has continually used inflammatory rhetoric to stake out his political positions, from calling climate change a hoax to labeling news coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news.” However, Trump’s most aggressive outbursts are consistently focused on immigration. This makes sense: Since the very beginning of his campaign, Trump has made restricting Latin American immigration at any cost his number one priority. Interestingly, despite Trump’s xenophobic rants and inhumane policies, immigration levels have soared since he took office. Though this may seem contradictory, it serves to highlight how Trump and the Republican Party fundamentally do not understand immigration in the modern world.

While Trump has aggressively pushed to strengthen the border and deter immigrants from coming into the U.S., immigration policy extends far beyond the border itself. What Trump fails to understand is that immigration is not a standalone issue that is dealt with exclusively at the border. In reality, immigration is deeply intertwined with America’s geopolitical relationships, foreign aid decisions and climate policy. Reforming immigration policy in any meaningful way requires working with those issues as well.

Before diving into other issues, it is important to point out that Trump’s aggressive immigration policies — aimed at deterring migrants from attempting the journey to the United States — are likely not particularly effective. As a study published in the Stanford Law Review Journal earlier this year, that specifically looked at immigration, explains; “criminal deterrence literature suggests that people generally do not know the law, are bad at rational decision-making, and even if they can make rational decisions, will choose to commit the crime because the perceived benefits often outweigh the perceived costs.” This analysis points out several key holes in Trump’s deterrence-centric immigration policies, mainly that immigrants often don’t know how Trump’s actual immigration policies legally differ from past plans. However, the most important part of the quote is the concluding section, a line that hints at the fundamental flaw of handling immigration as an isolated issue: Oftentimes, the situations immigrants are leaving behind supercede worries about American immigration policies. 

Global conditions have a major impact on immigration flow, which ties a whole host of American policies directly to the issue. Today, one of the most important factors driving migration is climate change. Many Central American countries, including Honduras and Guatemala, have large farming populations which suffer greatly as climate change destabilizes weather, limiting growing seasons and cutting into profits. Across the region, farmers are being forced to grow less lucrative crops, change their farming practices or simply not make money. With their economic prospects hobbled, many farmers are forced to migrate north to America and look for better-paying work. 

The United States’s huge carbon output, the highest per capita in the world, has helped create this predicament. Though American climate change policy (to the extent it exists) largely focuses on problems facing the United States, American emissions have a global impact, as exemplified by this situation. The logical response to this crisis would be to pass common-sense climate protection laws. In the past, the United States even sent American farming experts to Central America to help farmers mitigate the effects of climate change on their crops.

However, in addition to railing against immigrants, President Trump has simultaneously worked to systematically destroy and undermine American climate protection efforts, subsequently displacing the same Central American migrants he talks down upon. America, with Trump at the helm, has failed to take responsibility for the role its irresponsible climate policies have played in creating this wave of migration.

Another key issue which impacts migration flows is relations between the United States and Central America — particularly with respect to foreign aid. Many Central American countries struggle with gang violence, corruption and poverty, all of which are major factors pushing immigrants towards the United States. Ideally, the U.S. would combat this by providing aid to assist with these predicaments, helping ensure that Central American citizens feel safe in their home countries. Instead, Trump has taken the opposite route: Earlier this year, he drastically cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This was a dangerous move which will only worsen the conditions in Central America, driving more and more citizens to try and flee. 

Ultimately, Trump’s immigration policy represents a shortsighted, unsophisticated view of America’s problems and is primarily aimed at firing up his political base, which shows his failure to understand the real complexities of the issue. In reality, America should be working to cultivate better relationships with its Central American neighbors and improve living conditions throughout the region.

Coming to America should be a conscious choice immigrants have the right to make on their own, not one driven by America-induced economic or governmental failures in their home country. Imposing harsh punishments on Central American immigrants is an ineffective and needlessly cruel policy which fails to address any of the root causes driving immigration, and instead punishes people who are oftentimes victims of America’s own decisions.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.