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writing for godot

Tear Down the Wall: Andrew Sullivan Gets It Wrong on Immigration

Written by Susan Zakin   
Monday, 25 June 2018 16:40

The Pundit occupies an odd place in the shifting world of American journalism. We expect pundits to have a point of view, but we either love them or hate them because of their sensibilities. We want them to be original, but we also want our perceptions validated. In short, columnists are like politicians. We take what they say personally, and they wield influence that is usually out of proportion to their actual qualifications.

Unlike politicians, they don’t have to go anywhere, even to places in their own country that don’t deliver Thai food. Andrew Sullivan, whose British schoolboy pontificating on the parlous state of American democracy has contained so many uses of the word “tribalism” that one might be forgiven for thinking he’s channeling British colonial administrator Lord Lugard, has now pronounced his solution to America’s immigration woes. “So give him his fucking wall,” Sullivan proposed in New York magazine on June 22.

It’s a funny line, but like Trump’s crowd-pleasing one-liners, it’s wrong. Bone-headed, ignorant, sloppy, but most of all, just fucking wrong, if I may borrow the obscenity.

I lived on the border for 17 years. During that time, I watched life on the border change dramatically. I reported on the spike in deaths of border crossers under the Clinton administration, when officials stepped up “enforcement” in cities. This wrongheaded policy discouraged nobody, instead driving migrants out to the harsh deserts in Arizona, California, and Texas. They died crossing those deserts, and they did it in record numbers, more than 2,000 a year. Men died of exhaustion and dehydration, their bodies lost in unmarked graves. Women crossing the border were raped. Mothers died in front of their children. That was the Clinton policy.

On the border, I interviewed old-timers who remembered when Mexican nationals crossed back and forth on weekdays, coming to the U.S. to work, going home at night to their families. Authorities turned a blind eye and no one was the worse for it.

I traveled for weeks in the desert with archaeologists who had identified vast trading settlements where the ancient Hohokam rested in their migrations from the northern Arizona mountains to the Sea of Cortez. I interviewed biologists fighting to save the Sonoran desert pronghorn, one of many animals that Trump’s wall would prevent from finding what they need to survive. Work or water; it’s all the same, really.

In his New York column, Sullivan warns us that Donald Trump’s executive order stopping the separation of children and parents who cross the U.S. border fails to address what he calls the “underlying reasons for this atrocity.” He’s right about that.

He’s wrong about what those reasons are, and he’s deeply wrong about the solution. How is he wrong? Let me count the ways. Sullivan swallows the Trump line about illegal immigration being on the rise and he contends that border protection is inadequately funded. Both of these assumptions are demonstrably false.

Worse, Sullivan sets up a false equivalence between Republican obstruction on health care and Democrats refusing to fund The Wall, even though studies have repeatedly indicated a border wall would be ineffective and staggeringly expensive. Most misleading of all, Sullivan calls immigration a “legitimate” problem.

First, illegal immigration is not on the rise.

A little context here. It’s impossible to determine the actual number of undocumented people crossing the border. Guess why? They’re not checking in at the border! Policy wonks and journalists are forced to rely on the statistics that the U.S. Border Patrol keeps on what it calls “apprehensions.” These are people “apprehended” by border patrol officers.

The Trump administration has been quick to take credit for apprehensions dropping 40 percent from 2016 to 2017. While Trump’s vocal anti-immigrant stance played a role, so did Mexico’s changing immigration policies, and improvements in the economies of Latin American countries.

What recent statistics don’t give is context. Apprehensions have dropped by 80 percent since 2000, when they reached an all time high of 220,063. (This surge came after NAFTA went into effect, destroying much of Mexico’s agrarian economy by flooding Mexico with cheap U.S. corn and other commodities. There was no Willie Nelson staging Farm Aid benefits for Mexico’s peasant farmers.)

After 2008, the U.S. economy tanked, and so did migration. At the same time, Mexico’s economy was improving. Why come to a country with no jobs?

As Sullivan reports, migration numbers have risen in recent months. What he doesn’t say is that category-by-category, most of these increases are so small they are almost statistically insignificant. The uptick is largely due to unaccompanied minors and refugees from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum. I would venture to guess that ICE’s controversial arrests of longtime residents who were just minding their own business contributed to the rise, as well.

In other words, this is a manufactured crisis. Contrary to Trump administration rhetoric, the Bipartisan Policy Center found there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., down from 12.2 million in 2007. Most are longtime residents and the number is holding steady. For the record, the majority come from Asia, not Mexico.

As for our alleged failure to fund border enforcement, Sullivan needs to check his math. The budget for the Border Patrol, which every border rat knows is the bottom rung of federal law enforcement, attracting the least-educated and least-vetted officers, rose 380 percent from 2000 to 2017, from $1 billion to nearly $3.8 billion.

Not enough enforcement? In 2017, there were 700 miles of physical barriers, with 16,605 agents stationed on the Southwest border, not to mention an unprecedented number of Chevy suburbans tricked out with surveillance equipment. There is beaucoup satellite surveillance, too, and, of course, there are drones. You can’t go camping in a national park on the border without running into the Border Patrol, or drive anywhere within fifty miles of la linea without slowing for a checkpoint.

Does it work? Sort of, but not very well. The U.S.-Mexico border is more than 2,000 miles long, and as research on Trump’s Imaginary Wall has revealed, there is no physical barrier on earth that will stop migration. The question should be: Why are we doing this? Really. Why? Because there is no problem. Studies have repeatedly shown that immigrants aren’t “taking our jobs.” Crime statistics don’t rise with more immigration; they fall.

The only real benefit of militarizing the border has been to help re-elect Republican politicians in the American Southwest. Facing re-election, the pols hustle to attach riders to spending bills, resulting in increased funding for border security (“See what we’ve done for you?”) The agency’s ensuing rush to hire applicants for a frustrating and often unpleasant job in remote locations has resulted in the tragedies you read about: murders by trigger happy border patrol officers, officers caught up in smuggling rings, sexual abuse in detention centers.

Unlike most of my progressive friends, I kinda like Sullivan. I’ve appreciated him since his days at The New Republic, which he rescued from terminal dullness. An HIV-positive out gay man with a weed addiction that hasn’t hampered his prolific writing career, Sullivan supported Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, switching teams in 1992 to come out for Bill Clinton. I rarely shared his 1980s Thatcherite notions, but I found him provocative and smart.

Here’s what I think: Sullivan needs to get out more. Even with the detours to Brooklyn and Provincetown, he’s spent too long plying the Boston-Baltimore corridor. The border, as many writers have noted, is a third country, with its own culture and social organization. You need to get to know the border if you’re going to write about it. I’m not sure where Sullivan has been getting his information, but there are a whole raft of fake think tanks out there like The Center for Immigration Studies, which employs a bunch of slick, reasonable-sounding PR folks but has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and for good reason.

The most disturbing part of Sullivan’s column was the false equivalence he constructs between Republicans and Democrats, revealing the blinkered Beltway mentality of a pundit who’s been too long at the trough:

“The Democrats need to accept that they lost the last presidential election for a reason, and that their opponent’s main campaign pledge was to tackle illegal immigration, with a wall on the southern border as the centerpiece. Completely resisting a legitimate agenda based on a clear campaign promise — well, it reminds me of the Republicans with Obamacare.”

Really, Andy? Really? You’re comparing Trump’s idiotic wall, which every scrap of history and recent research on migration reveal will be largely ineffective despite an $18 billion price tag (and if you think that won’t triple, I have a really, really great wall, a terrific wall, the biggest, greatest wall I can sell you, only it’s in China) to America’s health care crisis? Seriously? An HIV-positive gay man? You’re doing that?

Like Sullivan, I’d shine on a couple of billion, but only if I thought it might get some kind of reasonable immigration reform passed. That. Will. Not. Happen. Trump’s latest salvo, emitted today as he was on his way to his Virginia golf course, was that migrants should simply be thrown out. Even asylum seekers, presumably; no court, no due process. Nada.

What did Southern slaveowners say about the blacks? “If you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell,” is what Frederick Douglass remembered from his childhood. (Ell is an archaic term for a cubit, the length of a man’s arm.) There’s something like poetic justice in applying it to Trump for whom any concession is an invitation to build a bigger, uglier building with his name in gold. I suspect that Chuck and Nancy, who initially tried to have sit-downs with the president* have made the same calculation.

So, no. The answer isn’t hiring more Border Patrol agents and it certainly isn’t Trump’s Stupid Wall. It’s reforming our fucked up immigration system. This isn’t me talking. It’s Tom Ridge, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who said, “I think [a comprehensive immigration approach] will add more to border security than any number of fences we can put across the border.”

On that, Sullivan and I agree. On the specifics, not so much.

*I am observing Esquire columnist Charles Pierce’s convention of attaching an asterisk to the honorific, because he’s not my president. Is he yours? your social media marketing partner


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0 # Paul Bunion 2018-06-28 09:28
Thanks for this informative, intelligent article. Yeah he's my president, though I'm not happy about it. I slap myself in the face with that fact a couple times a week just to keep my mind clear

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