We have an immigration problem that presents enormous challenges in balancing between treating people humanely and protecting our own interests. Republican candidates are hammering hard on the immigration problem in the run up to this election.
Ironically Republican policies are both the primary source of the “humanely treating” part of the problem and Republicans over the last 30 years have been the party in a position to do something about it.
Source of the Problem: The primary source of the “humanely” part of the problem is the Republican war on drugs pushed by Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush that stifled the supply of drugs in the US, despite continued demand. That created a huge market that fertilized criminal enterprises outside our borders who stepped up to fill that demand.
Nixon essentially made the same mistake the country made 50 years earlier with Prohibition. After 1918 the absence of legal alcohol created a blackmarket that led to the rise of massive criminal enterprises, that quickly led to an epidemic of violence in our cities. The problem was so massive and obvious we repealed Prohibition in 1933 .
But the prohibitionist zeal led to numerous laws criminalizing marijuana, a product mostly used by minority populations which the 1933 repeal of prohibition did effect. Marijuana laws continued to be enforced, mostly in minority communities.
By the mid to late 1960’s marijuana had become widely used by young people from all segments of society. In prior years the Federal government did lots of propaganda vilifying marijuana which was ludicrously false. Those propaganda messages became a joke in the 1960’s as young people with personal experience with the relatively benign effect of Marijuana began treating the old propaganda films like “Reefer Madness” as comedy. The ludicrously ignorant propaganda messages destroyed the government’s credibility on drugs. As the Vietnam war dragged on and got uglier and uglier the government also lost credibility about the war. Marijuana and the anti-war movement were linked by common distrust of government.
In 1971, President Nixon, who had promised in 1968 to end the war in his first term, faced a 1972 election with the war still raging. He needed an issue to distract from his breaking his 1968 election promise. With great fanfare, and lots of falsehoods about the dangers of marijuana, he declared a “War on Drugs”. Draconian punishments were enacted, coupled with funneling of vast amounts of federal funds dedicated to enforcing those laws.
The government was successful at limiting domestic production of illegal drugs. It did not, however, reduce demand. The result in the US was a rapid rise in US citizens being incarcerated for drug offenses. The US ended up incarcerating a bigger percentage of its citizens than any country in the world.
But the result south of our border was equally disastrous. Criminal enterprises in Mexico and Central America, out of reach of our Federal Government, filled the demand void. Over the years the massive amounts of money south of the border criminal enterprises generated selling drugs on our streets undermined law enforcement and governments in their home countries. It has evolved into the constant wars for control between different drug gangs that Mexico and Central America still struggle with.
Today much of the current traffic trying to come across our southern border consists of people fleeing the violence and chaos of their home countries sparked by criminal enterprises made powerful by our drug war so piously pushed by President’s Nixon, Reagan and Bush.
Doubly ironic is the fact probably the biggest actual health problem for US citizens from drugs since the drug war began involved seriously addictive drugs legal in the US. The first wave of the Oxycontin epidemic began during the 12 years from 1995 to 2007 when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Then when the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate again in 2013 Opiod deaths took off once again and accelerated through the Trump years. https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/epidemic.html
The Drug war was beyond a failure. It was a major contributor to the current waves of desperate immigrants trying to find a safe home by coming across our southern border, and allowed our drug companies and Doctors to maximize profits by pushing addictive prescription drugs on unsuspecting patients.
Who could have done something about immigration policy?
Beyond the counterproductive nature of the drug war, Republicans relying on immigration criticism to get elected ignore their own history of neglect. During the last four decades they have been the party that talked the most about the immigration problem, and repeatedly had the best opportunity to reform the immigration law without ever effectively addressing the problem.
From 1995 to 2006, twelve consecutive years, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, the last six years with a Republican President. That 12 years presented an unprecedented opportunity to revise the law on immigration in whatever way they chose. In the first year of their control, 1995, they passed one modest piece of legislation (to fulfill campaign pledges?). No further action was taken for the next 11 years. Once Democrats got control of the House in 2007 a bipartisan bill was passed that added more border patrol and enforcement and created more paths for citizenship, but neither bill addressed the drug war that fueled the criminal enterprises that create chaos south of the border.
Most recently Republicans controlled both houses of Congress from 2015 to 2018, the last two years with a Republican President who talked incessantly about immigration. Republicans always talked about immigration during campaigning but never passed any significant immigration legislation in that 4 year period. Is the immigration problem so valuable as a campaign issue they don’t want to solve the problem?
By contrast, since 1994 the only two years the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress was 2009–2010. They walked in the door in 2009 to be met with all the problems of the Great Recession’s collapsing economy. Although during this two year session they finally, after 90 years of trying, enacted a healthcare system for this country to reform our extraordinarily expensive and ineffective health care system, the ferocious Republican opposition to health care prevented them from doing anything else.
The long term answer to the “humanely” part of our immigration problem is undoing the damage done to governments south of the border and helping them deal with the violence and corruption from criminal enterprises our drug policies made so powerful. Hard to imagine Republicans, who have used immigration as an issue to get elected for the last 30 years and never actually done much that actually addresses the problem, will do any better this time around.