Immigrants caught in the middle of a fight between American states

In a crude political stunt, border governors send new arrivals to northeastern cities

Today's expression: Find your way
Explore more: Lesson #517
November 3, 2022:

America's national immigration policy has been broken for decades. Now, border state governors and big-city mayors are locked in a fight, with newly-arrived immigrants caught in between. It's a summary America's political and cultural dysfunction, all in one depressing story. Plus, learn the English expression "find your way."

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Here is a summary of American cultural and political dysfunction, all wrapped up in one depressing story

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and you are listening to Plain English, the best way to upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. JR is the producer. He has uploaded all of today’s lesson resources to PlainEnglish.com/517.

Coming up today: America’s dysfunctional immigration system has become—if anything—even worse, as border state governors are playing tricks on northern cities—and immigrants are caught in the middle. It’s an unfortunate illustration of the breakdown in America’s politics and culture.

In the second half of the lesson, we’ll talk about the English expression “find your way.” And we have a song of the week. Let’s get going.

States and cities spar, with migrants caught in between

For as long as I can remember, America has had a problem on its southern border. The problem is basically this: the American economy needs lower-wage workers, but it doesn’t provide a legal way to fill those jobs. So the incentives are high for migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to cross the border illegally: there’s always a job for an immigrant here, even without legal authorization to work.

An illegal border crossing is dangerous, though. The U.S. and Mexico share a 3,000-kilometer-long border; about half of that is represented by the Rio Grande River. At a few points, the border divides two cities—one on the American side and one on the Mexican side. But most the border area is rural or uninhabited. It’s harsh desert with punishing terrain.

The number of people crossing the border ebbs and flows with the economy, conditions in home countries, and the political climate in the U.S. Joe Biden, the Democratic president of the U.S., has shown a compassionate attitude toward migrants. The American job market is white-hot , and the humanitarian conditions in some parts of Central America seem worse than ever.

So in the last few years, a lot more people have made the treacherous journey north through Mexico and across the U.S. border. 2022 has already set a record for arrests at the border and it’s only October. Many migrants cross the border and find their way to towns and cities across the country, based on networks of friends, family, and others from their home regions. Other people arrive without such connections and try to assimilate into the regions where they arrive.

Immigration—even undocumented immigrants without the legal right to work—are a net positive to our economy and country. However, there are transition costs for migrants who have recently arrived. Schools, hospitals, and local humanitarian aid organizations all struggle to serve the flow of migrants into a relatively small border zone.

This is a situation where our federal system is not working. The flow of migrants across the border is a failure of the national government’s immigration policy. But it’s local governments that supply schooling and health care, and local organizations that serve migrants in their first weeks and months until they get settled. This understandably has local governments and residents feeling frustrated that they have to bear a disproportionate burden of the national government’s failure.

You could imagine a situation where border states work with the national government and other states to process the arrival of immigrants, find them transportation, and help them get settled in the place that makes the most sense for them. That sounds like something that a functioning nation could and should be able do.

That is not what’s happening. Instead , the governors of Texas and Arizona have spied a cynical opportunity. They are putting newly-arrived migrants on buses and sending them on a one-way journey to northern cities: New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., among others . This is significant because northern cities have advocated looser immigration policies. However, those northern cities haven’t had to accommodate an influx of newly-arrived immigrants.

The border states, however, are where the problem is most acute. So border state governors decided to send a message to northern cities. They put asylum seekers and other migrants on a days-long bus ride and dumped them in the middle of New York City with no help or assistance. How does New York like loose immigration policies now, these governors wondered out loud?

Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, howled in protest. So far, about 17,000 migrants have arrived in New York City on buses without any warning. The mayor publicly complained that this is unfair. He said New York never agreed to offer public services to so many people and that the city’s resources are being strained by the arrival of so many migrants.

The border state governors smirk in response. New York, a city of eight million people, declared a state of emergency to deal with seventeen thousand migrants. This is a tiny fraction—a tiny fraction—of the problem that much smaller communities along the border have been dealing with for years.

The tactic, as inhumane as it is, appears to be working. It’s great political theater in the border areas, appealing to immigration-weary voters—and, of course, it appeals to the people who don’t want any immigration at all. In fact, it’s such good theater that the governor of Florida has joined the fun, flying migrants to wealthy areas of Massachusetts. Never mind that Florida isn’t even a border state.

This is such a tragedy. Individual states can come to the rescue when the national government fails. This was true with gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. In this case, though, the individual states have taken a national failing and made it worse.

Too good a problem to solve

National politics are just too divided to deal with this issue. For a long time, states tended to have less divisive politics, so in cases like this, states can kind of lower the temperature and focus on the daily work of government, like settling migrants. But now the big national fights, the big national divisions, are reflected in state politics, even city politics too.

This just feels like such a solvable problem. Big cities need the migrants for the labor. Border states need help processing them. The labor market is good—it’s not like border migrants are taking jobs from Americans. You could imagine this being a good moment to fix the national problem. But it’s just too good of a campaign issue for both sides. If they solved the problem, each side would be robbing itself of some good campaign commercial material. What a mess.

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Expression: Find your way