From Borders to Buses: Understanding The Immigration Crisis

Tessa Petit (Florida Immigrant Coalition) and Jason Richwine (Center for Immigration Studies) debate U.S. immigration crisis responses.
Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF. All rights reserved.

Is There an Immigration Crisis In America or a Humanitarian One?

By Tessa Petit, Executive Director, Florida Immigrant Coalition, and Jason Richwine, Resident Scholar, Center for Immigration Studies

Tessa Petit (Florida Immigrant Coalition) and Jason Richwine (Center for Immigration Studies) debate U.S. immigration crisis responses.

Immigration Policies Need to Change

By Tessa Petit – Executive Director, Florida Immigrant Coalition

Throughout the United States, we are seeing state and local governments come up with extremely divisive policies to address the “Immigration Crisis.” The intentional proliferation by the media of the term “crisis” as it pertains to immigration makes it low-hanging fruit and, unfortunately, provides an opportunity for ill-intentioned groups to capitalize. 

On many occasions, the media’s portrayal of border issues and immigrants exaggerates the narratives of scarcity, insecurity, and the infamous replacement theory. These narratives become a twisted version of the truth, which then turn into faulty policies and hinder common-sense laws that help everyone.

Immigrant: A Person Who Comes to Live Permanently in a Foreign Country

Before we go deeper, let’s talk about the most important part of all of this: immigrants. The term itself has been demonized for generations. Yet at our core, those of us who migrate do not identify as immigrants before identifying as parents, grandparents, children, professionals, students, Christians, Muslims, and other indicators of who we really are as people. Immigrant is something we had to become. But why and how did we become “immigrants”? What are the root causes of immigration and how do we alleviate those? We know how war, violence, climate change, and poverty cause mass displacements, so what are we doing about it? If we want to deter migration from the Global South, which is generally what people in mainstream circles counts as unwanted immigration, we need to address the issues on the ground in an equitable and humanizing way.

While immigration should be an issue tackled in unity by both sides of the aisle with a goal to achieve a solution, we are seeing a concerted effort to create a sense of fear of immigrants—as if immigrants were going to replace established Americans and are solely responsible for our society’s dysfunctions. So much effort is being put into deportation, detention, and expulsion, whereas this energy could but put towards focusing on the positive impacts of a functioning immigration system. In many states, we have seen immigration create an increase in volunteerism, community organizing, and economic development. We know that close to seventy percent of Americans agree that immigrants deserve a pathway to citizenship because immigrants have been and remain the fabric of our country.

A Path To Citizenship

Criminalizing immigrants and those who love and share community with them is wrong. Drafting bills that would deprive children of access to education is inhumane and, frankly, to our detriment as a nation. Rounding up unsuspecting people when they are at their most vulnerable and sending them somewhere they don’t know without any preparation is not only cruel, it’s morally corrupt. If states like Texas and Florida truly wanted to help those seeking safety and refuge in our country, they would be working with their counterparts in Congress to create a balanced immigration system that addresses support for the states to integrate our new community members, increase our labor forces and address our shortages, and improve our economic strength. State legislators should focus on creating state-level systems that focus on integration in close coordination and collaboration with the federal government. 

For the 11 million people who identify themselves as Americans but lack the paperwork, our focus should be to create a path to citizenship. What is stopping us from welcoming DACA and TPS recipients who have been in the country for most of their lives? These folks are overwhelmingly overrepresented in healthcare and as business owners. What about the farmworkers to whom we owe our dinner every night? The labor of the workers who make up these groups is essential for our national security and thus the people should be treated as such.

Immigrants are Americans, Not Pawns For Political Games

We get in our own way with petty partisanship and finding a scapegoat for our problems instead of looking inward for solutions. For a lot of lawmakers, eliminating the issue is not politically expedient because their whole brand is to run on problems while bringing forward “solutions” that do nothing but create more division, confusion, and a justification for them to run again next cycle. And through it all, moms, dads, children, and grandparents, are held hostage by these political games.

Tessa Petit (Florida Immigrant Coalition) and Jason Richwine (Center for Immigration Studies) debate U.S. immigration crisis responses.

What About the Rule of Law? 

By Jason Richwine – Resident Scholar, Center for Immigration Studies

The crisis at the southern border is a disaster for the rule of law. Although Congress has carefully delineated in statute how many visas shall be available each year to which types of immigrants, an uncontrolled border renders those statutes meaningless. Since President Biden took office, millions of visa-less migrants have entered the country, either without inspection or through an overwhelmed port of entry that does little more than wave them through. The massive, unending flow has strained the resources of destination cities, from El Paso to Chicago. The effects of this flow—everything from fiscal cost to cultural change to downward pressure on low-skill wages—will be felt far into the future.

E-Verify Will Discourage Illegal Immigration

Because the federal government caused the crisis, only the federal government can solve it. In the meantime, states and localities can take action to blunt the impact. Some of these actions help discourage migration to the particular state or locality that adopts them, while others are designed to rally support for more federal enforcement. Let’s start with discouraging migration. The most effective policy available to states is universal E-Verify. E-Verify is an online tool run by the Department of Homeland Security that allows employers to quickly check whether their employees are authorized to work in the U.S. Properly enforced, a statewide E-Verify mandate would help reduce the “jobs magnet” that attracts many migrants in the first place. 

Proof that E-Verify works can be found in the business lobby’s warning that it will reduce access to illegal labor. However, fears that a state’s economy will crumble as a result are unfounded. For one thing, any E-Verify mandate would likely apply only to new hires, discouraging future illegal immigration, while giving employers time to shift their labor recruitment practices and to consider mechanization. Furthermore, reducing job competition could benefit U.S.-born workers, particularly those with low levels of education.

Of course, E-Verify is no panacea, partly because the Biden administration has granted work authorization to many of the “temporary” migrants it has invited. States should combine E-Verify with other disincentives to illegal immigration, such as limiting driver’s licenses, non-emergency Medicaid, and in-state college tuition to legal residents only. They should also ban sanctuary jurisdictions to ensure that local police cooperate with federal immigration authorities. To rally support for more enforcement, states can gather data on the scale and cost of illegal immigration. As my colleague Jessica Vaughn has explained, quantifying illegal immigration’s specific impact on, say, schools and hospitals could help convince residents both inside and outside of the state that more enforcement action is necessary.

Buses Help Share The Pain

Another way to encourage enforcement is to share the pain. Border-state governors have been relieving pressure on their own communities by transporting migrants to major cities such as New York and Chicago. Both cities have complained bitterly about this arrangement, but their ire has been directed as much toward the Biden administration as toward the state governors. When places far from the border experience the disruption of mass migration for themselves, they can, and do, start to call for better enforcement. Critics have called these migrant transports “cruel,” but the trips are voluntary.

Having read Ms. Petit’s opening statement, I fear that we are talking past each other. I have suggested actions to help discourage the massive migrant flow that is straining our communities, changing the culture, and flooding the low-skill labor market. By contrast, she has suggested actions that welcome the flow. Much of our underlying disagreement is therefore about the impact of immigration in general. Does Ms. Petit not believe that Americans have the right to decide who may enter our country?

Acknowledge the Crisis In Order to Fix It 

Any immigration policy short of open borders requires adequate enforcement. Democrats act as if there is no serious problem when millions of people without visas stream across our border. But this is a crisis Americans must address. We will never be able to restore the rule of law if we cannot even acknowledge the problem.

Immigrants are a Boon to the U.S., Not a Burden

By Tessa Petit – Executive Director, Florida Immigrant Coalition

Of the many narratives on immigration, let us start with the popular one that migration and the border “crisis” is the root cause of drug trafficking and consumption in the U.S. Drug trafficking has and will continue to exist as long as the government does not deploy the appropriate measures to protect its people from the plague of drug use happening around the world. Proper border control to prevent shipments of drugs through the Mexican border is not related to migration. People concerned with saving their lives are not drug traffickers.

The other argument that criminals are crossing our borders is an intentional exaggeration of the truth. Less than one percent of people showing up at our border have a criminal background. Using fear as a manufactured justification to put an end to the legal process of migration is just a misinformation tactic; it exploits a scarcity mindset to deny equal access to human beings. The United States has the resources to care for its people and much more. Immigrants are major contributors to the riches of the country and the least dependent on our social services. Immigrants come here to work, care for their families, and make a change in their lives. There is enough work for everyone and, actually, the country could use a larger labor force.

Local governments, such as the one in Florida, are passing draconian policies that will be hard to implement and are in fact not meant to protect “citizens” but to justify state-controlled military forces. Local governments are deceiving their people by redefining their role as protectors of the people, using false narratives to hide their limitations. Local policies cannot change what is happening at the Federal level. They can, however, be used to maximize the opportunities that migration offers to the state and make it more prosperous. 

Unlimited Immigration is Not in the Best Interest of the U.S.

By Jason Richwine – Resident Scholar, Center for Immigration Studies

Ms. Petit still cannot name any immigration enforcement measures that she supports, and she is not willing to affirm—despite my invitation—that Americans have the right to decide who enters their country. She apparently favors unlimited immigration, which must also be a viewpoint favored by certain Biden officials. How else to explain the administration’s abuse of the parole power to wave through hundreds of thousands of migrants who do not have visas? 

In downplaying the ill effects of immigration, Ms. Petit makes several statements unsupported by evidence. She claims that immigrants are “the least dependent on our social services,” but 49 percent of immigrant-headed households consumed at least one means-tested benefit in 2018, compared to 32 percent of native-headed households. She says “The country could use a larger labor force,” but we would have 6.4 million more workers by raising the labor-force participation of natives back to the level of the year 2000. Importing immigrant workers reduces the incentive to do so. She claims that “less than one percent of people showing up at our border have a criminal background,” but the unreliability of foreign background checks makes this figure meaningless. Data from Texas suggest the rates of homicide and sexual assault committed by illegal aliens may be relatively high, although the evidence is less clear for crime in general. Finally, Ms. Petit does not address the impact of cultural change, even though research shows immigrants tend to “transplant” traits such as trust, civic participation, and frugality from their old countries to their new ones. 

Unlimited immigration is clearly not in the interest of the U.S., which is why Congress has passed laws that delineate how many visas shall be available to which types of immigrants. As long as the president flouts those laws, state and local governments must do what they can to discourage the illegal flow.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our All Politics is Local series here

Tessa Petit
Executive Director, Florida Immigrant Coalition

Tessa Petit moved to the United States in 2001, working in social services with the Haitian community and with families experiencing homelessness. She brought her passion for social justice to the Florida Immigrant Coalition in 2016, where she helped to expand direct services in conjunction with issue advocacy, capacity building, and consciousness-raising. Tessa served as Director of Finance and Operations prior to becoming FLIC's Executive Director in 2022. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Leadership from Barry University.

Jason Richwine
Resident Scholar, Center for Immigration Studies

Jason Richwine is a Resident Scholar at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC-based research institute that examines the impact of immigration on the United States. He has written and spoken widely on issues of labor economics, both for a technical audience and for the general public. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Public Administration Review and Brookings Institution Press to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. He is also a regular contributor to National Review.

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