America needs more than a wall to tackle the border crisis

A border enforcement policy used by both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump expired last week. The policy, Title 42, allowed immigration officials to immediately expel immigrants who did not meet asylum standards. Its conclusion has led to a predictable surge in illegal border crossings.

With or without Title 42, it is inevitable that more people will come to this country. In 2022, the United States had about 2.76 million people cross the southern border — a new record even though Title 42 was being enforced.

The real question for policymakers is: What should replace Title 42? What policy changes and innovations can get the border under control and stop illegal immigration?

House Republicans passed a proposal last week to bolster border security. But until the U.S. begins expanding legal pathways in addition to its border security efforts, it will remain frustrated with the modern world’s migration challenges.

The Republican package hits many of the usual notes — a restart for border wall construction and increased penalties for violations of immigration law. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the House Majority leader, called the bill “the strongest border security package that Congress has ever taken up.”

Yet the legislation is noteworthy for what it’s missing: legal pathways into the country. Despite what many critics of the legislation will argue, border security investments and policies are important and valuable. They complement legal pathways. There’s no silver bullet or miracle cure for illegal immigration. Instead, we need a suite of policies that both expand legal immigration and build up the border.

By leaving out expanded legal pathways, the Republican proposal leaves out a critical ingredient. We need to see legal options as key pieces of border control rather than as antithetical to border security.

The agricultural guest worker visa program, the H-2A visa, illustrates this well. When agricultural visas were expanded from 1995 to 2015, illegal border entries fell because workers were able to come legally. The relationship between illegal and legal entries is basically a one-for-one exchange.

As a scientific matter, much of immigration’s flows are determined by trends outside of the U.S. Take Guatemala, for example. It has the opposite economic problem of the U.S. It has more people than it has jobs, so the mismatch draws people to the U.S., where jobs are more readily available.

We should also see legal immigration as an opportunity to strengthen America. The U.S. has a huge labor shortage. States across the country have more job openings than unemployed people.

In fact, this labor shortage dwarfs the immigration surge. Even if every single one of the 2022 crossers were admitted and allowed to work today, the U.S. would still be millions of workers short.

These needs are already known in Washington. On April 18, a bipartisan group of more than 50 legislatorssent a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security and the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services pointing out how farmers and businesses that use current guest worker programs need help affording the visa application process.

In recognition of this reality, the Chamber of Commerce announced its own immigration proposal package on May 1. It includes many of the border security improvements that Republicans passed but marries it with expanded legal immigration routes. That’s the right recipe for border security.

An effective immigration policy will require both a high wall and a wide gate. Immigration reforms that enable businesses to find the workforce they need will keep our economy on its strong path.

Congress must take action and build new bridges, not just walls. We’ll find success only if we embrace both smart border security investments along with new legal pathways.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.