During negotiations to end the government shutdown last week, President Trump said he might declare a national emergency over the southern border in order to bypass Congress and build his wall with defense funding. Trump repeated this threat on Sunday, then on Monday morning announced he would address the nation tonight regarding what he called “the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border.”
Do we really have a national emergency on the border, or is Trump just trying to leverage the language of crisis as part of his negotiations with Democrats? Yes and no. There is indeed a crisis on the border, but it’s not what you think.
The crisis is not, as Trump would have us believe, that record numbers of illegal immigrants are entering the country. In fact, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended on the southern border has been declining for nearly two decades, from a high of 1.6 million in 2000 to about a half-million last year. It’s true that the numbers are up relative to 2017, which saw a precipitous decline from 2016, but that increase has mostly consisted of record numbers of families and children coming from Central America seeking asylum.
As recent reports in the Washington Post and The New York Times explain, this surge of Central American families has overwhelmed border facilities that were designed to detain and process primarily single men. Sparse holding cells are now crowded with children, which has proven dangerous. Last month, two Guatemalan children died after being taken into U.S. custody.
So the surge in Central American families—and the administration’s refusal to manage it, opting instead for deterrence—is part of the crisis. But it could be mitigated by adopting different policies for admitting asylum-seekers at ports of entry, allocating more resources to process asylum claims, and hiring more immigration judges along the border, among other things. If they took the situation seriously, Democrats and Republicans might even be able to reach a compromise on all of this, including some funding for a border wall.
Criminal Networks Profit From Smuggling Migrants
The other, more intractable part of the crisis is much less visible to most Americans, in part because news organizations can’t dispatch reporters and photographers to chronicle it the way they can with massive migrant caravans. This is the crisis of endemic corruption in Mexico and Central America, where criminal networks large and small profit from illegal immigration and exploit Central Americans travelling through Mexico to the United States.
Cartels have in fact been working for years to commercialize illegal border crossings. The opening scene of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” features a title card explaining that drug cartels now control migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Film critics and some in the news media scoffed at this upon the movie’s release last year, calling it pure Hollywood fiction meant to raise the stakes of an otherwise lackluster action flick.
But the statement is more or less accurate. Although the phenomena is more complicated than the film suggests, it’s nevertheless true that most illegal border crossings now involve payments to criminal organizations in Mexico. The commercialization of illegal immigration is one of the most underreported stories of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the plain truth is that drug cartels exercise substantial control over who crosses the border, and when. Almost no one crosses without paying—the average fee is usually between $4,000 and $5,000—and often payments continue after migrants are in the United States, to secure passage through Border Patrol checkpoints further inland or pay off debt incurred during the journey north.
In recent years, paying customers are usually Central Americans fleeing horrifying levels of violence and poverty in their home countries. For them, the trip to the U.S. border is fraught with danger. From the moment they cross into Mexico, Central Americans are at risk of kidnapping, violence, extortion, and forced prostitution.
Certainly, most people in these countries don’t want to leave their homes and put their children in harm’s way. But it’s a testament to the dire conditions they face in their home countries—in many cases, certain death at the hands of gangs—that they take a risk most parents would never take.
‘El Chapo’ Shows Why a Wall Won’t Secure The Border
The other aspect of crime and corruption that doesn’t get much attention in the broader immigration debate is the number of national political and military leaders in Mexico and Central America that are in the pay of powerful criminal syndicates—drug cartels also in the business of smuggling migrants over the border.
The trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been underway for months now, and a parade of witnesses has gradually painted a shocking picture of Mexican society in what can only be described as a state of deep decay, even collapse. According to reports from the trial, drug cartels exert influence on everyone, from local police chiefs in border towns to the highest federal offices in Mexico City: “In two months of testimony, nearly every level of the Mexican government has been depicted as being on the take: Prison guards, airport officials, police officers, prosecutors, tax assessors and military personnel are all said to have been compromised. One former army general, Gilberto Toledano, was recently accused of routinely getting payoffs of $100,000 to permit the flow of drugs through his district.”
Last week, the star witness for prosecutors was Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael Zambada García, who assumed full control of the cartel when Guzman was arrested in 2016. Zambada had been groomed to take control of the cartel one day, reported the New York Times, and “knew almost everyone and everything” about how the cartel operates.
That includes knowing who was being paid. Zambada testified that his father’s bribery budget often reached $1 million a month, lining the pockets of high-ranking Mexican officials, including an army general who earned a stipend of $50,000 a month and a military officer who once worked as a personal guard for former Mexican president Vincente Fox.
The issue of bribes and government corruption has come up repeatedly during the trial. In November, Ismael’s brother, Jesus Zambada Garcia, testified that Guzman once ordered him to give $100,000 to a general in the state of Guerrero. In subsequent testimony about high-profile payoffs, he was about to implicate current Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador—until a federal judge stopped him.
Zambada Garcia’s testimony reportedly included details about how he, on behalf of his brother, twice paid a high-ranking law enforcement official named Genaro Garcia Luna, once when he was head of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency and again when he was in charge of Mexico’s federal police.
And it’s not just Mexico. In late November, the younger brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested on drug trafficking charges. American prosecutors say Juan Antonio Hernández spent a dozen years moving large shipments—“multi-ton loads”—of cocaine through Central America to the United States. The indictment states that Hernández, who stamped cocaine packets with his own brand, T.H. for Tony Hernández, paid off a slew of Honduran officials and demanded bribes from drug traffickers, for himself and “on behalf of one or more high-ranking Honduran politicians.”
A Wall Can’t Solve This Problem
Of course, large-scale drug-trafficking and human smuggling are two different things. But the criminal networks that engage in them overlap to a considerably degree, such that any attempt to seal off the border to illegal immigration must be understood in this broader context.
In fact, the most important difference between drug trafficking and human smuggling is that with the former, both migrant and smuggler have an incentive to get across the Rio Grande—the smuggler wants to get paid and the migrant wants to escape danger. A border wall will no more keep migrants from crossing the Rio Grande than a Border Patrol checkpoint will keep drugs from flowing into the U.S. interior. In both cases, there are powerful entities at work along the border with strong motives to get drugs and people into the United States.
All of which to say, the crisis extends from our southern border through Mexico and Central America, and involves almost every institution in those countries, not to mention entire U.S. communities along the border.
In confronting this problem, one thing is certain: if we don’t address the enormity of the corruption and societal decay in Mexico and Central America, it won’t matter how much money Congress approves for Trump’s border wall. No wall will be high enough to keep out the mass exodus of people who will give up everything they have, who will risk their lives and the lives of their children, to escape the failing states to our south.