President Donald Trump's Oval Office address this week was a total bust. His visit to the border fared no better. Trump predicted that his words and actions wouldn't "change a damn thing" when he spoke to news anchors before the speech. He's right — but not for the reasons he thinks. If Congress were to appropriate the $5.7 billion Trump wants for a wall — steel slats, bollards, alligators in a moat or whatever else he comes up with next — little, if anything, would change with respect to what's happening at our southern border.
Although illegal immigration is dramatically down, as is the size of the undocumented immigrant population living in the U.S. — by more than 1.5 million since its peak in 2006 — the number of families and unaccompanied minors seeking asylum has risen sharply over the past two years, reaching about 160,000 last year. But no matter how hard this administration tries to portray these people as criminals, they are simply following U.S. law. Most are fleeing extreme violence, much of it the direct result of U.S. demand for illegal drugs that are grown or processed in their home countries.
As odd as it may seem to many Americans, asylum requires the individuals to present themselves to immigration agents on U.S. soil. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website states it plainly: "To obtain asylum through the affirmative asylum process you must be physically present in the United States. You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status." Asylum-seekers have one year to make their claims after entering the U.S., and a wall would simply funnel them to ports of entry that are already jammed.
Democrats, if they were smart, would be offering solutions, not just saying no to a churlish president. A wall is not the answer to the asylum crisis at the border, but neither is pretending that the current system works. Democrats have asked for more money to deal with the consequences of the flood of asylum-seekers needing processing, temporary shelter, food and medical care. But we need to find a way to discourage these families from coming in the first place. That is not to say we should shut our doors altogether. We need to do it in a fair, systematic, orderly way, and that requires a change in law. And we need to do more to help Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador deal with the horrific crime from the illegal drug trade. This trade is driven by the millions of Americans who consume cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. Whenever an American buys illegal drugs, that person is financing the drug cartels and gangs, such as MS-13, that terrorize parents and children trying to live peaceful, lawful lives in Central American towns and countrysides.
Faced with the prospect of seeing your son beaten until he agrees to work for the cartel, your daughter raped and your own meager wages extorted by thugs who threaten to kill you if you don't comply, wouldn't you do whatever it takes to protect their lives and your own? Even if that meant walking hundreds of miles to beg for asylum in a country whose president vilifies you, you'd take your chances. I know I would.
The $5.7 billion the president is seeking could be far better spent attacking the problem at its source. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the most dangerous countries in the world. And Tijuana, Mexico, the border city where many asylum-seekers are now stuck awaiting their opportunity to apply, has experienced a spike in homicides. Two teenage migrants were reportedly murdered last month in Tijuana after border agents turned them away when they sought asylum.
The U.S. contributes about $180 million in combined aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which the president threatened to cut off during the infamous caravan episode in December. Democrats and Republicans need to get out of their rhetorical comfort zones, quit blaming each other and deal with what is happening to our neighbors and the problems it is causing the United States. A wall wouldn't solve it, but maybe helping Central America stop the drug trade would.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.