Thomas Friedman

SAN DIEGO —

On April 12, I toured the busiest border crossing between America and Mexico — the San Ysidro Port of Entry, in San Diego — and the walls being built around it. Guided by a U.S. Border Patrol team, I also traveled along the border right down to where the newest 18-foot-high slatted steel barrier ends and the wide-open hills and craggy valleys beckoning drug smugglers, asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants begin.

It’s a very troubling scene.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since October, along the whole southwest border, from California through Texas, there have been 190,000 apprehensions of “family units” (a child under 18 with a parent or legal guardian) who crossed illegally from Mexico, up from 40,000 a year ago. That’s an increase of 374%.

And roughly 30% of those apprehended sought asylum — up from 1% a couple of years ago. Asylum is a humanitarian status based on fear of persecution in one’s native land. Many of these requests are legitimate; some are economic migrants gaming the process. But once you’re in the U.S. and file for asylum, there’s a good chance for you to stay — legally or illegally.

In addition to families, 135,000 adults and 36,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October after entering illegally. Most of these immigrants come from Guatemala and Honduras (where President Donald Trump recently decided — insanely — to cut humanitarian aid), but migrants are also now flocking to open borders from as far away as Haiti and Africa.

The whole day left me more certain than ever that we have a real immigration crisis and that the solution is a high wall with a big gate — but a smart gate.

Without a high wall, too many Americans will lack confidence that we can control our borders, and they therefore will oppose the steady immigration we need. But for this wall to have a big gate, it has to be a smart and compassionate one, one that says, “Besides legitimate asylum-seekers, we’ll accept immigrants at a rate at which they can be properly absorbed into our society and workforce, and we’ll favor visa-­seekers with energies and talents that enrich and advance our society.” That’s the opposite of the unstrategic, far-too-random, chaotic immigration “system” we have now.

That’s been a “system” in which millions of people could cross into our country illegally or overstay their visas.

It’s a crazy “system” that tells so many foreign students who come here legally — to learn computer science, medicine, design or engineering — to get out after they graduate, while offering myriad protections to people who arrive illegally or win entry through a lottery. We can’t afford this unthinking approach any longer, not if we want to sustain the safety nets and the health care and education promises we’ve made for the people already here.

Indeed, if you are pro-immigration as I am, you have to acknowledge that this haphazard “system” has overwhelmed the Border Patrol and our immigration courts and contributed to Trump’s election. A May 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that 48% of white working-class Americans agree that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”

And in an era when more and more countries will fracture under environmental, population, criminal and technological stresses, we simply cannot take everyone who shows up at our border.

There has to be a compromise. As David Frum put it in his smart essay on immigration this month in The Atlantic, “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.”

And Trump fans need to realize that, yes, walls work — but only when paired with a strategy that says “we’re not only going to build walls.”

We’re also going to invest in stabilizing the countries with so many people seeking asylum in America; mitigate the climate change, overpopulation and governance stresses fracturing these countries; celebrate the essential contribution that a steady flow of legal, high-energy and high-IQ immigrants make to America.

Unfortunately, all those actions would require a president ready and able to forge a national immigration compromise. Instead, we’re stuck with a man who just exploits the border crisis and uses his “wall” to divide the nation and energize his base.

What a terrible waste of a crisis.

— Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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