Feb 2, 2024

My solutions to the border crisis

An actual plan for this moment.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

The problem.

Our southern border is in crisis.

I don't want to spend too much time trying to establish this fact, even though I know some people might not agree. Here is the reality, though: December was a record-breaking month for migrant encounters. Close to two million unauthorized migrants are estimated to have crossed the border undetected since Biden was inaugurated. Hundreds and hundreds of migrants continue to die in the U.S.-Mexico border region each year. Border towns are overwhelmed. Cities in the northeast are overwhelmed. Americans are understandably infuriated. The situation is dire.

Even progressive commentators understand that these huge levels of illegal migration are unsustainable and problematic. Here is progressive blogger Noah Smith articulating precisely why this is an issue:

"This is a massive problem. It’s a short-term logistical problem in terms of how to house and feed the millions pouring into the country — a task that is now straining the resources of many heavily Democratic cities. It’s a long-term fiscal problem, because these people will require heavy government support for their health care, housing, and education; this will end up coming from city and state governments, since they’re barred from federal welfare programs. And it also presents a psychological problem for Americans, because it violates their sense of sovereignty; there’s a general sense that these millions are forcing their way in, instead of being invited by the democratic will of the American people."

For a visual representation of what is happening, consider this graph on apprehensions and expulsions at the border:

Source: DHS
Source: DHS

Between October 2022 and September 2023, half a million of the migrants that were detected were expelled under Title 42. Close to 200,000 were put into expedited removal proceedings. Around 180,000 voluntarily left to avoid being processed further, while roughly 300,000 were given humanitarian parole (that is, they were allowed to temporarily live in the United States). And 1.5 million new cases were added to the immigration court system in that fiscal year. 

This issue is not unique to the U.S. and is not exclusively caused by Biden’s border policies. There is a global surge in forced displacement and migration due to conflicts, climate change, and the pandemic. An estimated 100 million people are currently displaced, a new record, and this number was calculated before the war between Israel and Hamas started. These external factors are a big driver of the current crisis. And the southern border isn’t the totality of our immigration system. It is one big part of it, though, and it is the one we are going to focus on today.

As I write this, members of Congress continue to negotiate a large, bipartisan piece of immigration reform. If any agreement were to become law, it'd be the first comprehensive immigration reform we've had in decades. Unfortunately, any compromise now looks unlikely, even though we have little idea what is inside the bill. 

The Biden administration's failures on the border are now running into campaign season, which means some Republicans have gone from seeing a problem to fix to seeing a problem that can be exploited for political gain. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accidentally said the quiet part out loud recently, conceding that reaching a deal before the election is unlikely because the party doesn’t want to "undermine" Donald Trump. For his part, Trump has, for weeks, been turning his ire on Republicans for any purported deal they’re trying to make without knowing any of the details of that deal.

It is not a Democratic talking point to suggest some Republicans are about to tank this bill to hurt Biden. It's just the reality. Here is Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), one of the most staunch conservatives in the Senate, who is also at the center of these negotiations.

"It is interesting, Republicans, four months ago, would not give funding for Ukraine, for Israel and for our southern border because we demanded changes in policy. So, we actually locked arms together and said, 'We're not going to give money for this. We want a change in law,'" Lankford said. "And now, it's interesting, a few months later, when we're finally getting to the end, they're like, 'Oh, just kidding, I actually don't want a change in law because of a presidential election year.'"

This is becoming unfortunately common. Just this week, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) openly suggested voting against a bipartisan tax bill that passed the House with an overwhelming majority because it might help Biden.

“Passing a tax bill that makes the president look good — mailing out checks before the election — means he could be re-elected, and then we won't extend the 2017 tax cuts,” Grassley said.

I am not optimistic any immigration deal is going to get done, because the tides are turning against a solution in favor of electoral politics. This is the hare-brained reality of what was once the greatest deliberative body on earth (the U.S. Senate), but has now been reduced to just another cynical and ineffective political institution.

So, today, I thought I'd write about what should happen, and what I think Congress is theoretically capable of passing today if they can swallow their cynicism enough to try. This is not an attempt to "wave a magic wand" and get my wish. This is not “what would I do if I could get everything I want.” Instead, this is what an actual, realistic path forward on immigration policy could be. Not in 2025, not in 10 years, not what we wish we did a decade ago — but what it could look like right now, in this political moment, with Joe Biden in the White House, Democrats controlling the Senate, and Republicans controlling the House.

I am going to break down my proposal into three parts: "What to give Republicans," "What to give Democrats," and "What I want" — a section where I add some ideas that aren’t platform planks for either party but feel useful and are very doable.

Finally, before we jump in, I also think it is important to define what I think a successful immigration policy looks like. To me, good immigration policy does the following:

1) Keeps Americans safe and our system orderly

2) Supports a robust workforce and healthy population growth

3) Lives up to ideals our nation was founded on

Those are my goals. They should be Congress’s goals, as well. 

So, with that, let's jump in.

What to give Republicans.

To begin, let’s take a look at some things Republicans are asking for that Democrats should give them. Remember: Democrats have an upper hand here, in that they control the White House and the Senate. Republicans aren’t going to get everything they want, but there are a lot of good ideas from Republicans that Democrats should be open to, and a lot that Republicans could realistically get in a border deal.

Tighten the asylum process

This is, perhaps, the most important area for reform on the board, and the one that Democrats are most resistant to. Biden has already begun implementing certain policies that require migrants to show proof they have applied for asylum in other countries they’ve passed through, and these kinds of policies should continue to expand. Refugees coming from a place like Venezuela will pass through (or are nearer to) many nations where they can find safety if they have incentives to go there. The reality is most migrants we see at the southern border are economic migrants, not refugees fleeing for their lives.

Simply speaking, our policies don’t reflect that reality. Many Americans believe Biden is flouting U.S. laws and not enforcing the border, but some of his biggest problems come from the current laws that he actually is enforcing. In particular, our asylum laws come from the U.N.’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Those rules require us not to penalize asylum seekers for crossing the border illegally if they present themselves without delay for processing.

In other words, crossing the border illegally and immediately surrendering to law enforcement to claim asylum — which many immigrants do — is actually lawful. Unfortunately, it also amounts to a massive loophole in our system, and those who take advantage of it must be granted an asylum hearing. While many migrants are deserving of asylum, many more are abusing this system. The majority of those claiming asylum end up not qualifying once their claims are actually heard.

Among the host of productive ideas the Migration Policy Institute has on its website are several that address asylum. Doris Meissner suggested we allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Asylum Corps officers, who typically do the initial screening at the border for asylum seekers, to complete the entire adjudication process. Right now, those asylum seekers are sent to immigration court after their initial screening if they pass the credible fear test. But that court has a backlog numbering in the millions. The options for clearing it are allowing these officers to fulfill the entire process, or pouring more money into getting immigration judges and lawyers to the border to complete the process. Either is a good option, and nothing is preventing us from pursuing both.

Licensing or hiring more adjudicators would allow us to determine who can stay and who needs to leave a lot faster. It also has the potential to save us money by removing an incentive for some migrants to come, which would lower the influx at the border, ultimately reducing security costs. Speeding up the process would also help save money by not having to hold migrants for extended periods of time.

Another option worth considering is simply raising the threshold for what qualifies an asylum seeker to stay in the U.S. This would violate the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but — as Noah Smith also argued — the cost of doing so is pretty small, and given our current predicament, almost certainly worth it. It’s also worth noting this: Any policy that increases the speed of asylum processing and better susses out legitimate asylum claims from fraudulent ones is the most humane policy we can have, because it would better ensure that legitimate asylum seekers are identified and aided. Long waits and disorder hurt those genuine refugees, who are the group we should be most focused on trying to help.

More border security

Fundamentally, Republicans want fewer migrants crossing the southern border each day, and less drugs and other illicit material making it into the U.S. This is a request that everyone should be amenable to, and a give and take from Democrats should not be that complicated. 

President Trump pushed for a concrete wall that spanned the 2,000 mile border. There are huge problems with a wall. For one, building and maintaining a wall along the whole southern border would be expensive (two federal contracts for replacing just 135 miles of the existing slatted wall came out to $3 billion) and require construction (and using eminent domain) on a lot of private land. Second, it is unlikely to be effective, as evidenced by the many migrants who have gone over, around, under, and through the border walls we’ve had in the past (border walls globally have very mixed results). Third, it raises major environmental issues, as it can cut communities off from critical natural resources like the Rio Grande, which is the lifeblood of many border towns (for everything from tourism to bathing). Most importantly, though, any major wall construction is unlikely to get votes from Democrats and is a nonstarter with Biden, so it’s pointless to try to shoehorn more wall construction into this bill.

Far superior to building a wall is implementing more tech and manpower. Given how many “gotaways” cross into the country each year, and given how overwhelming the recent migrant surge has been, hiring more border patrol agents and beefing up tech on the border (like adding motion and light sensors in desolate areas) is a perfectly reasonable idea Democrats should embrace. 

Some politicians, like Will Hurd, have floated the idea of sentry towers in certain areas. There is something militaristic about this idea that many Democrats will object to, and local communities should have final say on whether giant towers with border agents and tech are built in their towns. But in places with a lot of crossings that might want them, sentry towers could be very useful security centers.

E-Verify for employment

E-Verify is an online verification system aimed at curbing illegal labor practices. The website, operated by the Department of Homeland Security, allows employers to confirm the immigration status of their employees based on information pulled from I-9 forms. Initially, it was created in the 1990s for voluntary usage. By 2007 it was required for all federal government agencies. Today, it is being used by companies that get federal contracts, while 22 states require it for all employers. But it faces criticism for a number of reasons, primarily because it limits the agricultural workforce. This is more of a flaw in policy than in the E-Verify system, but it reflects the reality that we do a bad job of allowing much-needed workers to come and work here legally.

During her presidential campaign, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for mandatory nationwide E-Verify programs. Republicans pushed a bill last year to compel all employers to use E-Verify, and the Secure the Border Act that forms the basis for many Republican demands in these negotiations includes language mandating it. Some Republicans are opposed to it on libertarian grounds — “another government database,” as Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) put it — while others fear its impact on the agriculture industry in their districts. 

But plenty of Republicans do want to expand or mandate the program, and Democrats should be able to agree. Asking employers to ensure their workers can work here legally should be a fundamental, baseline idea for bringing order to our immigration system. It’s true that some immigrants easily evade E-Verify by simply submitting another person’s papers. However, it’s also true that not requiring E-Verify makes it way easier for undocumented workers to work for low wages in poor conditions and allows companies to avoid hiring more expensive legal workers. On top of that, it sends a signal that it is easy to get a job here illegally (which is the signal we are sending now), which creates incentives for more illegal immigration, helping cartel traffickers and contributing to the huge influx of economic migrants on our border.

The best criticism of E-Verify is that it would limit the workforce among agricultural workers, which is bad for our economy, for food prices, and for the companies who desperately need to fill jobs a lot of Americans don’t seem to want anyway. This is true. But refusing to verify workers as legal is not the answer. The answer is making it easier for workers who want to come here and work with temporary status to come here and work with temporary status.

Rein in parole

Immigration parole is a way for the United States government to grant non-citizens legal status in the U.S. without risk of deportation.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security can grant parole status for urgent humanitarian reasons or reasons pertaining to public interest. Often, parole is granted for a short period of time — anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.

Not too long ago, parole was used relatively rarely. Between 2014 and 2019, about 5,600 people per year were paroled into the country after being apprehended on the border, and between 35,000 and 120,000 per year were paroled into the country in total. In 2023, though, researchers estimate that number was above 300,000 people in the first 10 months alone.

The Biden administration used parole in a widely accepted and bipartisan way recently when it granted parole to roughly 80,000 Afghans it evacuated from Kabul during the U.S. withdrawal. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the administration also granted parole to 150,000 Ukrainians.

However, President Biden has also been using parole in ways that are far less popular. For instance, he's tried to implement a plan that allows migrants to come through legal ports of entry "on parole." At one point, 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were flying into the U.S. each month and then getting paroled into protective status.

Republicans want to take away a president's ability to set up broad parole programs like that. And they are right to want to. A parole program as expansive as the one President Biden has implemented for migrants from South America should not be possible without approval from Congress, and it should be prohibited by comprehensive immigration reform.

Another idea is to create limits on the number of people who can be granted parole in a month or year. Since the primary concern is not being able to track people whose parole has expired but who might still be in the country, setting quotas based on the immigration system’s capacity makes sense to me. In other words, lawmakers can work with immigration officials to determine exactly what they need to monitor the status of parolees — what technology, how many agents, what kind of communication networks, etc. — and then set limits based on whether or not those benchmarks have been met.

However they do it, the way the Biden administration is using parole currently is in serious need of guardrails. According to reports we have on these negotiations, debates over parole are a huge sticking point, but Democrats could cede some ground here while asking for a little more elsewhere.

What to give Democrats.

Obviously, Democrats aren’t going to give up all of the above — including some policies many of them oppose — unless they get something in return. Remember: We are trying to make something realistic here, and Democrats control the Senate and the White House. That means Republicans are going to have to give up on some things they don’t like, including granting citizenship to some unauthorized migrants who are here and providing more avenues for legal immigration.

Pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients

This is a big bridge to cross and it could tank a deal, but Democrats should keep pushing for it, and Republicans should accept it. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who is seen as a moderate in these talks, has said any DACA citizenship talk would effectively end the negotiations. That is an unfortunate position to take, but given their control of the upper chamber, I think it's one Democrats should call his bluff on. 

There are a fixed number of DACA recipients who were brought here as children illegally by their parents, know little of any other country besides America, and have had to live in constant fear of deportation and a state of legal limbo as teenagers and now adults. The DACA program attempts to bring them out of the darkness and into full legal status. It’s already facing legal challenges, and new applicants are already being stymied, but Congress codifying DACA as law would at least solve its legal issues. 

All the usual caveats should apply: Any pathway to citizenship requires a DACA recipient to have no criminal record and have a high school diploma. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats can agree to other limits. But there are roughly 580,000 people who did nothing wrong, are for all intents and purposes American citizens, but don’t have the same rights and benefits because of their parents’ actions. 

Righting this wrong does a few things. One: It allows them to contribute to American society without all the barriers non-citizens face, which would be an economic win. Two: It hands a major chip to Democrats, something they very much want, which gives Republicans more leverage in the talks and better enables them to achieve some of the restrictive but necessary reforms to our immigration system that they want. Three: It increases the odds children brought here illegally will turn into successful, stable, and contributing adults. By blocking these immigrants from legal status, they lose out on education and job opportunities, which increases their chances of becoming a burden on society. Providing DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship is a good response to that reality.

The biggest downside is that it would reward illegal immigration and create an incentive for more migrants to come to the U.S. illegally with their children in tow. That downside is very real. The best way to mitigate it is to pair DACA citizenship with more restrictionist immigration policies and better legal avenues to immigration, which a package like this one would do. But this is one of those things that can’t, and probably shouldn’t, get passed on its own.

That means a big reform bill is a great time to do it. 74% of Americans support legal status for immigrants brought here as children, including majorities of both Republicans and Democrats. It’s time to get this done and remove it as a bargaining chip in negotiations like this.

Grant lots of work permits

A lot of the migrants who make it into the U.S. get here and aren’t legally allowed to work, or come in illegally because they rightly assume they can’t get a legal work permit. There are times when the U.S. needs to be very sparing about how many workers it gives work permits to. Now is not one of them. U.S. unemployment rates are historically low, wages are strong, and our economy is doing pretty well. We have an aging population and there are still 9 million jobs that need to be filled, and lots of employers trying to fill them.

The best-case scenario is to have someone immigrate here legally, get a job or start a business, and become a contributing member of society. The worst-case scenario is to have a migrant enter the U.S. illegally, settle somewhere in the U.S. interior, and then be unable to work, thus requiring resources and care from local or federal government (which is a cost to the taxpayer). 

So, if we know migrants are going to come here legally and illegally, and if we have determined we are going to try to prevent the ones that come illegally from working, we should make it easier to come here legally and work. This will result in a lot fewer “worst-case scenarios.” It doesn’t mean we’ll only have “best-case scenarios,” but it will result in more “pretty good scenarios” — immigrants working legally, paying taxes and spending the money they earn, which is obviously good for the economy and for taxpayers.

In September, the U.S. cap on H-2B visas for seasonal, nonfarm jobs was 66,000 per fiscal year (more than double what we previously had). We’ve reached that cap every single year since 2015. There is technically no cap on H-2A visas for seasonal agricultural work, but the process for receiving one is notoriously complex and expensive. H-2A programs are also seasonal, meaning they can’t be used for dairy and other farms that actually require year-round labor. Under Donald Trump, temporary work visa programs actually grew. This was, in part, because demands for labor continued to grow. 

It’s also worth noting that when we simplify and expand these visa programs, illegal immigration goes down. Congress can score a win for Republicans and Democrats with these visa programs by streamlining the process, opening up H-2A visas to non-seasonal workers, and removing minimum wage increases that are not tied to inflation. 

Even with the expansions we’ve seen, we’re not close to filling all the jobs that workers could fill on H2-B and H2-A visas. That is part of the reason why so many economic migrants come here illegally — because they know they are likely to find work without having to chance it on a cumbersome process. Our aging population needs it, our employers need it, and our economy would benefit from it.

Make legal immigration easier

This is a broad goal, obviously, and in a lot of ways a Democratic position. But David J. Bier also made the case in Cato Institute from the conservative, small-government perspective. Bier argues that immigration restrictionists tend to create problems in the system by demanding low levels of immigration, then suggesting more restrictionist policies to solve the problem the original restrictions created. He put it like this:

"Border communities are declaring “states of emergency” because they have so many immigrants sleeping on their streets. It’s a real problem, but why are they sleeping on their streets? Because politicians won’t let them enter legally and line up transportation in advance, so when Border Patrol unexpectedly releases them, they sleep next to bus depots waiting for the next bus out of town.

Rural border hospitals are begging Congress for bailouts. But many migrants end up needing medical care because Border Patrol intentionally uses walls to direct them to cross through deserts or across rivers where they can become dehydrated or drown. The wall has only added to the chaos with record numbers falling from the wall and severely injuring themselves."

And so on.

The simple truth is that the best way to promote order while also restricting illegal immigration is to open up pathways for more legal immigration. We can do this very effectively right now because we have low rates of legal immigration (see chart below), historically high levels of illegal immigration, and lots of jobs to fill.

Temporary visas are one way to provide more legal immigration. But there are a host of other ways — from increasing the number of available green cards to creating new visa programs for year-round, non-agricultural work. Suggesting a specific way to provide more legal avenues at a national level is a little perilous, as members of Congress are going to be driven by the demands of their districts. But on a fundamental level, any border security legislation should also be streamlining and expanding legal immigration — especially for economic migrants.

Chart via Cato Institute
Chart via Cato Institute

Bake in a refugee floor

To reiterate, briefly: Democrats should embrace Republicans' demand for more border security. They should also embrace tightening the asylum system to close a giant loophole in immigration. And they should rein in parole, a program President Biden has used to circumvent Congress.

A pathway to citizenship for DACA isn’t all they can get in exchange for all of that. They should also demand that Republicans bake in as part of any immigration overhaul package a high floor for accepting refugees. This is a fundamental part of the American promise, and our refugee program has proven to be beneficial to both our society and our economy. 

And it shouldn’t be that partisan, either. Indeed, when President Trump’s Department Of Health and Human Services produced a rigorous accounting of the assimilation and economic impact of refugees and asylees, the report was so positive that immigration restrictionists in the administration actually stonewalled its release. The New York Times got a copy and it was summarized by Cato

That report tells a story that many immigration experts already know: We are extraordinarily good at assimilating immigrants, and it is in our best economic and national interest to stake a moral high ground and set the standard as a country that shelters the poor and the huddled masses. All of this is much more true when it comes to legal immigration.

Unfortunately, we’ve given far too much power to the president to determine how refugees are handled. The number of admissions fell by 86% from 2016 to 2020. Biden initially kept refugee caps low, but has since raised them to 125,000 per year. Congress should end the four-year whiplash. As part of a broader immigration deal, they should codify a high floor for accepting refugees — somewhere close to where it is now — and send a signal that we are a welcoming nation (though any refugee entering the U.S. will of course undergo extensive vetting, as many do now). When the country is in need of more immigrants, or in a position to accept more refugees, there should be a mechanism for Congress (not the president) to raise the cap accordingly.

This would be an effective policy and would also send a signal that we are still in touch with some of the core values that make the United States a fundamentally moral society.

Push for high-skilled labor

This is something that has strong bipartisan support and Democrats should not have a hard time selling Republicans on it. Polling shows that a large majority of Americans support high-skilled immigration, including 68% of Republicans. The biggest issue is that Democrats are going to be pushing for more expansive legal immigration options across the board (see above) so they'll need to do some selling on this, too.

Most people understand the U.S. is short on low-skilled labor, in part because the country is becoming more educated and aging, which makes it harder to find employees willing to work in certain industries. What many people don't realize is the U.S. also has a shortage of STEM-focused Ph.D.s and other advanced degree holders.

Unfortunately, many of the foreign students who come here to earn degrees can't stay after school — sometimes because of green card caps, other times because of conditions on their student visas. One proposed solution is to simply allow international students who graduate from U.S. academic institutions to legally stay in the country for as long as they're employed in designated fields. Those fields can be determined by Congress or immigration agencies based on the need for skilled labor. We can do this by creating a new program or simply lifting certain green card caps.

We've actually done this before. The Immigration Act of 1965 gave preference to professionals with skills in short supply in the United States, which brought in thousands of medical professionals and engineers to the U.S. to fill the labor shortage. The program was heralded as a bipartisan success and helped grow critical domestic industries. Today, a similar program could fill those gaps while also keeping highly educated immigrants here after our world-class universities invest so much in their education, rather than forcing them to leave and effectively exporting that investment to other places.

Once again, this is not a situation where U.S. citizens are losing out on jobs to foreigners. Companies are desperately trying to fill open positions right now, and because immigrants educated in the U.S. often can't stay, and those companies can't find the labor among U.S. citizens, they end up just offshoring those jobs anyway.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has more expansive ideas about the specifics, but the fundamentals are straightforward: We should make it easier for foreign students receiving an American education in STEM fields to stay here and work, because it's great for our economy and widely supported by Americans.

What I want.

Everything above represents a give and take that I think is realistic for the current dynamics in the White House and Congress. Some of the ideas I really like, others not as much, but together I think they represent a strong proposal for immigration reform that Republicans and Democrats could actually sign off on. Rather than comb back through everything and say which ones I think would be the best or most realistic, I’d like to use the last bit of space here to make the case for a few things I support that aren’t explicitly positions of the left or right, but could realistically get bipartisan support and should be included in any immigration reform package.

More judges, lawyers, and asylum officers

Anyone who’s been reading Tangle for a while knew this was coming. 

One key thing that should be prioritized by both parties is bringing more resources to the border. This does not just mean Border Patrol agents, but judges, lawyers, and administrators (like Asylum Corps officers) who process migrants at the border. I already mentioned this a bit under “Tighten asylum process,” but the biggest need in that category is more legal professionals.

In one way this may sound like a request Democrats would support, since it involves directing funding towards helping migrants. But in another way, it’s a very Republican request because it will help secure the asylum process. If we don’t put more resources into processing migrants, there is a much bigger chance asylum seekers have delayed court dates, get released into the U.S., and then go off the radar and live without legal immigration status. Similarly, without vastly expanding the number of people who are working in the immigration system who are qualified to handle this work, we’ll face the same problems of backlogs and disorder that plague our immigration system now.

A few years ago, I interviewed Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh about this idea. Like many thinkers from Cato, Nowrasteh favors liberal immigration positions from a small-government, conservative perspective. He wants more legal immigration and fewer restrictions on immigration, allowing the market to decide how many migrants should come and go.

His response to my suggestion was that he was “torn” on whether adding more judges, lawyers and administrators is a good idea, because “it depends entirely upon the policies that the judges are enforcing.” From his perspective, empowering lots of additional judges or asylum officers could be a bad thing under a restrictionist administration.

I’m not convinced. We should have an immigration system that can execute the laws our president and Congress have chosen. In order to have that, we need a much more robust system of judges, lawyers, and administrators to process the migrants coming here and claiming asylum. There are sure to be times when our government will have a restrictionist bent and that will mean fewer immigrants getting in. But there will also be times when we elect leaders who support more robust legal immigration and its economic benefits. In either case, the voters have a better chance of seeing the positions they voted for effectively put into practice if we have a system that can actually process and handle large inflows of migrants.

Decouple from aid to Ukraine

In a lot of ways this has already happened, but the Senate needs to move forward without tying this aid to Ukraine. Regardless of how you feel about it (I personally think Congress should pass at least one more bill to provide security assistance to Ukraine), it’s a separate issue that our elected leaders should decide on its own merits.

Initially, Republicans were the ones who wanted to tie Ukraine aid to border security, because they thought it would be a must-pass piece of legislation for Democrats. Back then, Democrats did not want the deals linked, as they felt very strongly that we must get funds to Ukraine as soon as possible. Now that a border security deal is becoming the priority, some of those Republicans have decided it isn’t a great idea to have the two linked. Of course, Democrats would now be happy to get a bipartisan immigration deal tied to funding for Ukraine. 

Those roles may have reversed, but my position hasn’t. I think the idea that our Congress would negotiate comprehensive immigration reform and funding for military conflicts overseas together is complete madness. There is no rational reason the fate of such disparate and unrelated pieces of legislation should be tied together. Congress and President Biden should negotiate on each issue separately and pass each bill separately.

A plan for the cartel

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with the sheriff of a border town, and he joked with me that we could shut down the border in an afternoon if we really wanted to. How? Just cut a deal with the cartel. Give them money, and they could stop the flow just like that.

It was one of those things people say in jest that actually has a lot of truth to it. I’m not even sure he was kidding. The cartel does effectively have operational control on the border, and they are helping many migrants cross. It’s a big part of how they make money. Dealing with the cartel directly sounds ludicrous on its face, but why? We negotiate with all sorts of bad actors, from dictators abroad to literal terrorist organizations, so why not negotiate with the cartel? Why not at least have open lines of communication?

The other option, of course, is to fight them. Plenty of conservatives are suggesting that and it is just as naive to pretend there’s no merit to that idea. Narco-terrorist cartels are flooding the U.S. with illicit and deadly drugs on top of running a massive operation to move migrants across the border that we have now lost control of. 

I have a hard time imagining how the U.S. could use military force against the cartels in Mexico with any kind of success, and without the totally preposterous spectacle of our law enforcement troops being put in war-like danger inside Mexico. I am not suggesting a specific policy proposal here and certainly not suggesting we start invading Mexico to fight drug dealers. I do, however, think we need a specific, comprehensive, and clear plan for how to address the Mexican cartels as a part of immigration reform. Ignoring their role in our border security issues would be just as absurd as ignoring the Mexican government or our own Border Patrol agents — they are that central to the problem.


All of these ideas being enacted at the same time — in one wide-ranging, comprehensive immigration bill — would do the following: Remove incentives for many migrants to come here illegally. Take away loopholes that allow abuse of our parole system. Ramp up the “boots on the ground” and technological surveillance of the border. Vastly increase the legal pathways for temporary residency in the U.S. Spend our money more wisely on the kinds of judicial and administrative infrastructure that would allow our law enforcement to focus on enforcing the law. And finally, keep our immigration system from being stuck in a never-ending cycle of disorder and backlogs.

Together, such legislation accomplishes the goals I laid out in the beginning for a functioning immigration system. It would keep Americans safe and make our system more orderly; it would support a robust workforce and healthy population growth; it would live up to the ideals our nation was founded on. 

What do you think about the plan? Write in and let us know.

Appreciated this piece?

  • You can drop something in the "tip jar" to say thanks. Your donations go straight to our team.
  • Feel free to share it on social media — you can grab the link here.
  • Even though this is a members-only edition, we encourage you to forward it to friends and family. If someone sent you this, you can subscribe to Tangle here.

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 100,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.