As the so-called migrant caravan continues through Mexico towards the U.S. border, the debate about how to address its inevitable arrival continues to rage on Capitol Hill and in the press. While the debate is often seen through the lens of the caravan’s immediate effect on the country and the impending midterm elections, the precedent its arrival will set is what will ultimately be etched into the history books.
Whether the caravan is welcomed into the country or rebuffed by U.S. border security, it will be an important fork in the road for U.S. immigration policy, not only because of the caravan itself, but also because of the attitudes displayed within the media and the Democratic Party.
For future Democratic presidential hopefuls, a strong stance on illegal immigration or those seeking asylum will now be fraught with difficulty. A prospective candidate with an immigration policy his or her primary opponents could paint as “Trump-like” will be ceaselessly labelled by that stance, with challengers using it to consistently drag down such candidates’ support within the party.
A Historical Precedent in Australia
Despite the island nation’s position in the South Pacific thousands of miles from the majority of conflicts throughout the world, Australia has had serious problems handling asylum-seeker boats captained by people smugglers.
The boats with asylum seekers generally originate from Indonesia just to Australia’s north across the Indian Ocean, not directly from conflict zones, as one might imagine. Once they have made their way to Indonesia from their home nations, they find smugglers willing to give them passage to Australian territories such as Christmas Island. According to a report commissioned by the Australian government in 1999, passage then cost an estimated $7,000 to $28,000 per person to make the one-way voyage.
A weakening of the Australian government’s immigration policy in 2008 ended the government’s detention of asylum seekers on Pacific islands such as Nauru, with the government now choosing to process all claims for asylum on Australian soil. As a result, the number of asylum seekers choosing to make the journey by boat increased by over 12,600 percent in just five years, according to internal Australian government figures.
In a little less than six years of the increased attempts at gaining asylum by boat, experts estimate that around 1,100 asylum seekers died at sea attempting the journey. Despite the fact Australia accepts asylum applications made upon arrival at airports, between 2009 and 2013, more than 51,000 asylum seekers chose to make the journey by boat.
Parallels for Modern America
In weakening its previously successful stance towards asylum seekers arriving by sea, the Australian government’s change in policy encouraged tens of thousands of people to make the journey across the world to Indonesia and finally to Australia, often in leaky, poorly maintained boats.
It’s entirely possible that the current migrant caravan could be a similar moment for the United States. However, unlike Australia, the United States is not an isolated island out in the South Pacific with stable and prosperous neighbors.
The United States has land borders and tens of millions of people throughout its geographical backyard suffering from crime and abject poverty. In Venezuela alone, there are more than 30 million people suffering as their nation falls apart economically and the social fabric begins to fray as a result.
Frankly, I don’t blame anyone who would get on a boat or on the back of a truck in search of a better life in the United States or elsewhere. It’s only human to want what’s best for your family, to keep them safe, and to make sure they grow up in a country where they can prosper. I don’t think many of us could say we wouldn’t at least consider doing the exact same thing, if faced with similar circumstances.
However, in terms of the big picture, there is more at stake for the United States than the futures of the 7,000 prospective asylum applicants in this particular caravan. By opening the door for this group of migrants, the U.S. government may be opening a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences for not only the United States, but also the entire region. For example, why would a potential Venezuelan refugee make the dangerous trek into a neighboring country in search of safety, if he thought he could get on a ship and make his way to the United States unimpeded?
No Easy Answers
Ultimately, the caravan and its associated implications for the nation’s immigration policy are extremely complex issues, especially when viewed with regards to the existing international obligations the United States is required to uphold.
However, there is also the logistical reality to take into account. If the United States allows large migrant caravans entry through its borders, it will only be a matter of time before others decide that they too have had enough of poverty and crime, and set off for America. Recall, of course, that living conditions in the majority of the world are worse than they are in the United States. This rationale would allow millions of people into the United States, numbers impossible for the country to absorb.
If Australia’s experience can teach U.S. policy makers anything, it is that when you open the door people will decide to make the perilous journey to walk through it, even if they have to cover half the globe and cross the ocean on a rickety boat.