Hillsdale Imprimis: The Disaster at Our Southern Border

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The following is adapted from a speech delivered on July 22, 2021, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., as part of the AWC Family Foundation Lecture Series.

In just a few short months, the Biden administration has created a disaster on the southern border of the United States. It did so by methodically—and by all indications intentionally—undoing every meaningful border security measure that had been in place. As a result, we have had five straight months of over 170,000 illegal immigrants apprehended at the border. The number in June was the highest in over 20 years. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been effectively shut down.

Our national discussion of border security is generally misleading, and it is designed to be misleading by those who favor open borders. They frame the issue as if the American people face a binary choice: either let all immigrants in because they are “looking for a better life” or close our borders completely and inhumanely. But this is a false choice. The unspoken alternative is to enforce the law, taking in immigrants who enter the U.S. legally while securing our borders against those who attempt to enter illegally—particularly those meaning to do us harm.

Illegal immigration is, of course, nothing new. It has been a problem in our country for many decades. What is relatively new is the total lack of concern we see in the Biden administration, especially in terms of the national security aspect of border control.

Unbelievable as it may seem to us today, it was only 15 years ago—with the 9/11 terrorist attacks still fresh in our minds—when Congress came together in a bipartisan effort to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The Secure Fence Act directed the Department of Homeland Security to take appropriate actions to achieve “operational control” over U.S. land and maritime borders to “prevent unlawful entry.” It defined operational control as the prevention of all unlawful entries into the U.S., including terrorists, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband. And it specifically set the goal of “provid[ing] at least two layers of reinforced fencing, installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors.” It added thousands of Border Patrol personnel, mandated the acquisition of new technologies, and resulted in the construction of more than 650 miles of physical barrier along the southern border of the U.S. between 2006 and 2011.

To repeat, this legislation was passed in a bipartisan spirit, with 80 members of the U.S. Senate voting to approve it. This included Senator Barack Obama, who said in 2005: “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants in this country.” It included Senator Chuck Schumer, who said in 2009: “Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple. . . . People who enter the United States without permission are illegal aliens and illegal aliens should not be treated the same as people who enter the U.S. legally.” And it included Senator Joe Biden, who said in 2006: “Let me tell you something, folks, people are driving across that border with tons, tons—hear me, tons—of everything from byproducts from methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin, and it’s all coming up through corrupt Mexico.”

Some attribute the breakdown of the bipartisan consensus on securing the border to the fact that Democrats came to look on illegal immigrants as much-needed Democrat voters. For whatever reason, a decade later these same Democratic leaders were lambasting President Trump’s border wall policy as “immoral and ineffective,” even “racist,” and fiercely opposing any and every serious proposal aimed at enforcing immigration law.

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When I say that the Biden administration methodically undid every meaningful border security policy that it inherited, what specifically do I mean? I’ve mentioned the border wall. And it is a demonstrable fact that border walls, placed in strategic locations, act as effective impediments and improve the ability of law enforcement to drive and dictate the behavior of criminal organizations rather than being driven and dictated to themselves. One of the most ridiculous criticisms I’ve heard is that the wall is “a fourteenth century solution for a twenty-first century problem.” The same could be said of the wheel, which also still works pretty well.

In any case, the first bullet point of President Biden’s budget for the Department of Homeland Security this year trumpets the fact that not a cent will go towards the construction of border walls.

Yet despite the amount of intense debate the border wall engendered, it was not the only or even the most important border security measure instituted under the Trump administration. Let me outline two other key game changers.

Prior to Trump’s presidency, a combination of three things had the effect of forcing the Department of Homeland Security to institute a “catch and release” policy for illegal immigrants: the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which mandated that the U.S. detain all unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries (countries other than Mexico and Canada); Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive policy adopted in 2012 to allow some of the migrants brought into the country illegally as children to receive a renewable deferred action from deportation; and the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 court decree that was reinterpreted in 2015 to prevent the U.S. from detaining migrant families and unaccompanied minors for more than 20 days. In addition to catch and release, these things combined to bring about a demographic shift in illegal immigration that was immediately exploited by smuggling organizations—a shift from the influx of predominantly single adult males from Mexico to an explosive influx of families and unaccompanied minors from far and wide, and particularly from Central America. By 2016, the message had been sent and received that America’s southern border was wide open.

In response to this, the Trump administration negotiated the Migrant Protection Protocol, a bilateral agreement with Mexico more commonly known as the Remain in Mexico Program….

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Continue reading this article, published August 2021 at Imprimis.

Mark Morgan is a visiting fellow at the Federation for American Immigration Reform and at the Heritage Foundation. He served as acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Trump administration and as chief of U.S. Border Patrol in the Obama administration. A Marine veteran and a former officer in the LAPD, he served for over 20 years in the FBI, including as the assistant section chief of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime Branch; deputy on-scene commander in Baghdad, Iraq; special agent in charge of the El Paso Division; and assistant director in charge of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He has a B.S. in engineering from Central Missouri State University and a J.D. from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

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