President Trump, egged on by immigration adviser Stephen Miller, is currently undertaking a purge of top homeland security officials who are seen as suspect, in part because they are not willing to flout the law in the quest to be as cruel and inhumane to asylum seekers as Trump would like them to be.
This purge is meant to clear the decks for Trump and Miller to implement a much “tougher” agenda to deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border.
As you watch this purge unfold, keep this number in mind: 13.
That number comes from a voluminous study of the asylum crisis commissioned by Trump’s own administration. It found that migrants from Northern Triangle countries to the U.S. can expect their wages to increase on average by 13 to 14 times over wages at home.
This study, which was released last fall — but has since received almost no attention — is worth revisiting. It helps illuminate the twisted and venal motives behind Trump’s ouster of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as many policies he’s trying to implement right now.
First, let’s look at Trump’s purge. Trump will remove the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, because, as the New York Times reports, Miller was “angered” when he refused “to make changes to asylum policy without congressional approval” that would have made it harder for unauthorized immigrants to exercise their legal right to seek asylum.
Meanwhile, CNN’s Jake Tapper reports on a private meeting in which aides talked Trump out of closing the border, whereupon this happened:
Trump, however, was insistent that his administration begin taking another action — denying asylum seekers entry. Nielsen tried to explain to the President that the asylum laws allow migrants from Central America to come to the US and gain entry. She talked to the White House counsel to see if there were any exceptions, but he told her that her reading of the law was correct.
That didn’t work, but Trump kept trying, per CNN:
Behind the scenes, two sources told CNN, the President told border agents to not let migrants in. Tell them we don’t have the capacity, he said. If judges give you trouble, say, “Sorry, judge, I can’t do it. We don’t have the room.”
All this dovetails with previous reporting which tells us that Trump ousted Nielsen in part because she refused to illegally deny entry to all asylum seekers.
What Trump and Miller want to do now
Trump and Miller are looking to implement a new version of family separations, to force migrant parents to choose between indefinite detention as a family or agreeing to a separation under which children are released. As one senior official told CNN, Trump "just wants to separate families.”
But as The Post reports, this risks getting blocked again in court, and even some administration officials are resisting, citing the ferocious backlash last time.
It’s precisely this type of squeamishness that Trump and Miller are trying to purge. The Times reports on the policies they’re hoping to implement now:
Those include further limits on who can seek asylum; stronger action to close ports of entry along the Mexican border; an executive order to end birthright citizenship; more aggressive construction of a border wall; and a more robust embrace of active-duty troops to secure the border against illegal immigration.
And Axios reports that Trump and Miller also hope to raise the bar for people to invoke “credible fear” of persecution in home countries. They might try to get the State Department to produce “analysis” that contradicts migrants’ claims about conditions in their home countries.
That last point is particularly infuriating, because some in the State Department disagree with Trump on a core question: whether to continue aid to Central America to ameliorate those very conditions, aid that Trump nixed.
What drives migrants
Which leads us back to that study. To better understand the problem, Customs and Border Protection in 2017 asked a division of Homeland Security to fund a comprehensive examination of migration flows.
The study’s findings are complex, but one key motivation for these Central American migrants to the United States is that on average, wages “tend to be about 13 to 14 times the wages available to them in their home countries.” Given how low their wages presumably are here, that’s an extraordinary glimpse into their economic desperation.
In keeping with these findings, the current head of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, has repeatedly said we must expand aid to these countries to treat the underlying conditions that help cause these migrations. He may soon head DHS.
In fairness, the study does lend some support to one of Trump’s arguments. It finds that perceptions of changes in U.S. policies do impact migrations. Trump could argue this supports his demand for changes in laws to, say, make it easier to detain families together, to remove the “draw” of being able to escape into the interior while awaiting a hearing.
What’s more, one might argue that if economic drivers are primary, many of those people shouldn’t qualify for asylum. But the study also finds crime and violence are major drivers -- while this might not qualify for asylum, it also reveals their desperation -- and we have a screening process to determine who qualifies and who doesn’t.
We should have a bigger debate over whether asylum categories should be broadened to include extreme economic deprivation. But we can say right now that many of the policies Trump and Miller want are completely detached from those “push” factors, and only address “pull” factors. Some, such as more barrier, don’t even address those, or worse, are counterproductive, such as cutting aid to browbeat other countries into “stopping” migrations, when what we need are more aid and more regional cooperation.
By contrast, Democrats are currently developing an agenda that focuses on those “push” factors, via increased aid to those countries and, possibly, the use of international mechanisms to enable migrants to apply from abroad, rather than undertake dangerous journeys. This will also include stepped-up investments in speeding up the processing of migrants who do arrive here — far better than legal changes that maximize cruelty.
This is in direct contrast to the Trump/Miller agenda — a nationalism that backtracks everywhere on what Jedediah Britton-Purdy calls the “ethical responsibilities of global interdependence.”
‘The cruelty is the point’
These days, you constantly hear versions of Adam Serwer’s formulation that “cruelty” to migrants is the “point,” that is, the end goal, of Trump’s policies. It’s hard to argue with this, given all we’ve learned about Nielsen’s ouster, but we can say more.
Trump and Miller also envision a United States with far fewer immigrants — legal or illegal — in it, and absolutely key to this goal is reducing the numbers of people who successfully enter because they are desperate enough to legally qualify for asylum. Many of the “tougher” policies they now want to implement would, they hope, accomplish that goal. The cruelty is the point, but so is retreating on our international humanitarian commitments in as many ways as possible.