Putting the Border Patrol to work means breaking up with Title 42

You are “$20 billion too little and two years too late,” reads the letter that Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) handed President Joe Biden earlier in the month during the president’s first visit to the southern border. With a record-setting number of border crossings in 2022, there’s a clear need for more cooperation and attention on immigration.

The United States faces great challenges in making its immigration system work for the well-being of the nation. The right policies would put Border Patrol agents on the actual border.

A promising place to start is to revamp Title 42, the public health authority for the U.S. to expel people from the country to prevent the spread of disease. Despite its reputation, Title 42 is not a policy that gets more Border Patrol members out on patrol. In fact, Title 42 has drawn undeserved praise as an enforcement tool.

The common claim that Title 42 deters illegal crossings is just not there in the numbers. Rather, because people were immediately returned across the border to Mexico, they immediately tried to cross it again. Repeat crossers used to be less than 1 in 10 of those apprehended. But because of Title 42, that recidivism rate jumped to 1 in 4, according to researchers at the Migration Policy Institute. Always alert to such opportunities, those selling smuggling services merely offered a bargain to immigrants — multiple attempts for the price of one.

Research on why people immigrate makes clear that we shouldn’t expect U.S. border policies alone to change every would-be migrant’s mind. Factors such as cartel and gang violence push people out of their homes, just as they are pulled into the U.S. by lax enforcement and economic opportunity.

Just compare Guatemala’s economy with our own. We have about 4 million more job openings than people looking for work. Guatemala has the opposite problem — more people than jobs to go around. If you were a Guatemalan looking for a way upward in life, why wouldn’t you pack up and head north? Perhaps you’ll be caught eventually, but you can expect to find work immediately.

Getting our house in order will mean grappling with push and pull factors that encourage immigration. On the push side, we have obvious long-term options. The U.S. should continue to support efforts against dangerous groups involved in the drug trade in the country and abroad.

The U.S. also needs to improve its asylum processes and hire more people to manage them. One government report concluded that about half of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s staff were being diverted “away from the border security mission” to care for immigrants during 2019.

That’s why the National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents, has supported proposals by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) to hire more asylum officers and immigration judges to decide on asylum requests quickly. These are needed investments in the U.S. immigration system. Hiring more people to put on patrol is worthwhile as well. But hiring other staff will pull agents out of courtrooms and put them back out on patrol.

To manage immigration’s pull factors, we should make guest worker programs the norm. Consider the Haitian experience with our existing programs. When Haitian immigrants were assembling at the southern border in 2021, too few asked why they hadn’t come through legal channels. Those who did learned that Haitians are in fact ineligible for guest worker programs. With legal pathways unavailable, they took the only option left to them.

American farmers also find the agricultural guest worker program so tied up with red tape that it’s difficult to use. For example, dairy farmers are essentially excluded from the entire program.

Each of these changes is a small part of what is needed to make sensible immigration the norm again. Biden’s short visit should only be the start of such cooperation between border states and Washington, D.C. The good news is that eight senators, including Tillis and three other Republicans, were also touring border communities in Arizona recently.

If Congress and policymakers in Washington want to make a difference, they should focus not on such policies as Title 42 but on policies that actually put agents on patrol. Together, these reforms will benefit immigrants who want to find a piece of the American dream and Americans who worry about border security.

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.