The foreign policy issue that could decide the U.S. presidential election

Leading Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to look "tough" on immigration.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Presidential elections in the United States are almost always decided by domestic issues. Once in a while a global concern like terrorism or a particular war will affect voters’ choices. But Americans care most about their own livelihoods: jobs, housing, the cost of food.

In 2024, a number of global issues should weigh heavily on the minds of Americans. There’s the overwhelming threat of climate change. Voters should also care deeply about the horrific destruction of the Palestinian community in Gaza and the ongoing efforts of Ukrainians to defend their country.

But there’s really only one foreign policy issue that could decide the election in November. That issue is immigration.

America is a country of immigrants. It also desperately needs immigrants right now to do the essential jobs that keep America healthy, well-fed, and housed: pick vegetables, process meat, care for the elderly, do low-paid construction work. The unemployment rate in the United States is currently around 3.7 percent. Historically, that is very low. Many of the job sectors that have traditionally employed immigrants—health care, landscaping, cleaning services, restaurant work—have the greatest number of open positions at the moment.

Despite the need for these workers, many Americans believe falsely that immigrants are taking away their jobs. It’s not just that immigrants are working the jobs that native-born Americans generally don’t want to do. Because of all the retiring Boomers, millions of immigrants are necessary every year just to keep the economy afloat.

And yet, more than a quarter of the American population thinks that immigration, on balance, is a bad thing. Compared to 2020, when only 28 percent of Americans thought that immigration should be decreased, that number rose to 41 percent by June 2023.

Republican Party politicians, in particular, are following these trends. Republicans have been busy politicizing the border issue in order to distract voters from the rather obvious fact that the U.S. economy is doing pretty well, at least according to most conventional metrics. Republicans in the House of Representatives impeached Alejandro Mayorkas, the member of the Biden cabinet responsible for immigration policy. The same Republicans have tried to push a bill through Congress that would make it much more difficult for people to cross the U.S. border and claim asylum. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has sent busloads of undocumented migrants to cities in the north, such as New York, controlled by Democrats.

And Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for president, has declared that migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” This language is very similar to the rhetoric of Nazis and white supremacists.

The Republicans—and some Democrats—have also framed the border issue as a “crisis” that requires a military response comparable to how the United States is helping Ukraine and Israel. In terms of statistics, there has indeed been an increase in undocumented persons crossing the border. In December 2023, nearly 250,000 migrants encountered the U.S. Border Patrol, a new record. In January, however, those numbers fell by half.

The upward trend in border-crossings is the result of a number of developments. Fully one-fifth of the migrants in December came from Venezuela, a country whose population has decreased dramatically as a result of political repression, economic decline, and rising crime. Similar factors have pushed people out of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti.

Beginning in 2021, Nicaragua abolished visa requirements for Cubans, Haitians, Senegalese, Indians, Uzbeks, and others. In addition to boosting the fortunes of Nicaraguan travel companies, the government there is consciously hoping to destabilize the United States, a long-time enemy of Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega. Fully 10 percent of the people trying to get across the U.S. border have passed through Nicaragua.

The Biden administration is considering proposals to tighten some of the rules governing asylum. That might include shutting down the border if numbers rise above a certain level, such as an average of 5,000 per day in one week. Frankly, Biden is worried that he will lose the election because he isn’t “tough enough” on immigration. So, he has moved to the right on this issue to appeal to conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents.

In order to secure Republican support, the Democrats even tried to include tighter immigration restrictions in a bill that combined military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. But the Republicans ended up rejecting that bill because the immigration provisions were not tight enough and some Republicans opposed military aid for Ukraine. So, once again, Congress has failed to pass immigration reform, even though there is broad consensus on such policies as increasing funding for border control.

Donald Trump and the Republicans have pinned the blame for this political failure on the Biden administration. Biden, meanwhile, has declared that “every day between now and November the American people are going to know the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends.”

Instead of pouring money into border control, however, the United States should be helping to improve conditions on the ground in the countries from which so many of these migrants are coming. The Biden administration has provided several hundred million dollars to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It’s not enough to make a difference.

The United States also needs to figure out ways of engaging with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. There are ways of helping people on the ground—through trade and greater information exchange—without directly benefitting the dictators of those countries. The Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, which facilitated the flow of trade and tourism dollars into the country, should serve as a model.

Migrants not only contribute enormously to the economic success of the United States. They also, through remittances to their families back home, contribute to the economic success of their countries of birth. These remittances are many times greater than the bilateral assistance the U.S. government provides to these countries.

But to provide those remittances, people who arrive in this country must be able to work. Asylum seekers and other new arrivals often face long waits before they can get work permits. “The great tragedy of this situation is that we have employers all over the city calling us every week saying, ‘We have open jobs—can we please hire the migrants that have arrived?’” Denver Mayor Mike Johnston reports. Some politicians, like Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, have called on the Biden administration to grant short-term work authorization for migrants so that they can get jobs, get out of shelters, and start filling all the open jobs.

What is happening at the border is not a crisis. Migrants, after all, are not the problem. Both in the United States and in their countries of origin, migrants are the solution.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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