The official Twitter account of the Arizona Republican Party tweeted on Aug. 9, “The border is wide open, and our towns are being overrun by migrants.” U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn tweeted on Aug. 4, “The Democrats have abandoned our border security.” A quick search for the #BidenBorderCrisis hashtag reveals dozens of equally histrionic pronouncements.
So what exactly has President Joe Biden done with respect to immigration, and how has it changed the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border?
Immigration law is complicated, with a lot of moving parts. I know I cannot do it full justice in just a couple of sentences, but I’ll do my best to be clear while also being succinct. Biden has proposed legislation that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, would update the existing family based immigration system, and would increase the number of diversity visas. His administration also is increasing the number of refugees admitted annually, preserving deportation relief for children who are unauthorized immigrants, and choosing not to enforce the rule that denies green cards to immigrants who may be eligible for public benefits like Medicaid.
What effect are these policies having? With a less draconian system in place, are there new droves of people trying to abuse a perceived weakness? The short answer is no.
Number of unauthorized immigrants
According to the Department of Homeland Security, in the last 15 years, the population of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States has remained remarkably steady, between a low of 10.8 million (in 2009) and a high of 11.8 million (in 2007). Most recently, the estimate is 11.4 million. The most important thing about these numbers is that they have been so constant, never wavering more than 10% in either direction. While rhetoric about unauthorized immigrants may be on the rise, the population of unauthorized immigrants has not substantially changed.
However, that data set has not been updated during the first months of the Biden administration, so we have to consider the possibility that, despite 15 years of consistency, there might have been a surge in the past seven months that has changed the equation.
“There are more attempts to cross the border under the Biden administration, but they are actually being made by fewer people than under the previous administration.”
A study by the American Immigration Council has data on apprehensions and expulsions of unauthorized immigrants through June of this year. Their research shows that the Biden administration has abandoned the previous administration’s Remain in Mexico Program and is instead processing immigrants much more efficiently under Title 42 of the U.S. Code. This has not meant that the United States lets in anyone who tries to cross; to date, the Biden administration has expelled about 64% of people encountered by Border Patrol.
However, due to the increased efficiency of processing and rejecting unauthorized immigrants that are taken into custody at the border, about 40% of those who are sent back to Mexico attempt to cross again. So while there were 1.1 million border encounters in the nine months ending in June 2021, the number of unique encounters was only 690,718. Compare that to the same time period in 2019, where there were only 780,479 total encounters, but there were 721,328 unique encounters. There are more attempts to cross the border under the Biden administration, but they are actually being made by fewer people than under the previous administration.
I live in Texas, which seems to be the epicenter of this debate. Our Attorney General, Ken Paxton, issued a press release on March 31, in which he broke down the $850 million the state of Texas pays every year to sustain the state’s population of about 2 million unauthorized immigrants.
Most of the cost relates to hospital expenses (between $579 million and $717 million) and housing ($152 million). Paxton also made sure to mention the $1 million the Family Violence Program expends on unauthorized immigrants. The variance alone in his hospital expense estimate was 138 times larger than this expenditure, but he was determined to show the receipts on the costs to which he can attach the words “family violence,” despite those costs only making up about a tenth of a percent of the total.
“He was determined to show the receipts on the costs to which he can attach the words ‘family violence,’ despite those costs only making up about a tenth of a percent of the total.”
Regardless of Paxton’s motivation for the costs he chose to enumerate, I have no reason to believe that the figures are inaccurate, and $850 million is a substantial sum of money. As a Christian, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to pay it anyway, and I could cite dozens of Scriptures that state our calling to care for the less fortunate, and to be hospitable to foreigners we encounter.
But America is not a Christian nation (an assertion that probably merits its own column), so it would be inappropriate to base our immigration policy solely on the Bible’s teachings. That said, we can point out the hypocrisy of elected leaders who claim the banner of Christianity, but then seek to punish or reject people based on their immigration status.
I could also quote from Emma Lazarus’ words, which are inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. One of the most recognizable symbols of America explicitly reaches out to welcome huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Nothing could be more American than accepting immigrants, not because of the ways we could benefit, but because of the ways they could benefit.
As a Christian and an American, it seems clear to me that welcoming immigrants is a worthy calling to which we have an obligation to respond. But even the most fervent, impassioned, ethical plea would not be enough to convince everyone. Some people are pragmatists to the core, and taking on an $850 million loss is too great an economic burden to bear.
But is it an $850 million loss?
You cannot do a cost-benefit analysis by only looking at costs without benefits. The American Immigration Council released a study that shows unauthorized immigrants in Texas pay $1.6 billion annually in state and local taxes, not to mention the $2.6 billion they pay in federal taxes per year. Not even counting for the value of their labor, or their unquantifiable contributions to our society, unauthorized immigrants pay for themselves twice over in state and local taxes.
“Unauthorized immigrants in Texas pay $1.6 billion annually in state and local taxes, not to mention the $2.6 billion they pay in federal taxes per year.”
It is disingenuous to say that we have a border crisis simply because some of our immigration policies have shifted. That is not to say there is no work to be done at the border. The living conditions of those in detention are unacceptable, the wait times for immigration court hearings are extremely long, and many children are still separated from their parents. But there is absolutely no reason to fear that unauthorized immigrants are threatening our capacity to maintain order due to the new immigration policies.
If we are able to quiet our xenophobic impulses, this is a scenario where we do not have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the pragmatic thing.
Under the Biden administration, there has not been a massive influx of new unauthorized immigrants. Even if there were, unauthorized immigrants are not a drain on our communities; they are an asset.
Andy Brookshire is a Dallas-based attorney who is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and George Washington University Law School. He is a lay leader at Wilshire Baptist Church and is a member of the 2021 class of BJC Fellows.