There’s a common argument in anti-immigration politics that claims undocumented immigration is a burden on social services and the public — or, as President Trump put it in his final, desperate messaging in the lead-up to the midterm elections, it “undermines public safety, and places enormous strain on local schools, hospitals and communities.”
It’s a message that can resonate, given the lack of affordable housing in US cities, outrageous health care costs, crumbling infrastructure, and schools deprived of funding. But it’s also a calculated misdirection, because anyone concerned about these issues shouldn’t be worried about asylum-seekers stuck at the border — the source of these problems is much closer to home.
Though it may not feel this way to its many inhabitants who struggle to get by, the United States is a place of plenty, not scarcity. One illustration of the country’s wealth is the number of golf courses it boasts. There are, astoundingly, 14,794 golf courses in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation — more than twice the number of the roughly 6,000 individuals currently in Tijuana seeking asylum.
Yes, there are enough golf courses in the United States for every adult and child asylum-seeker in Tijuana to have their own entire course — and there would still be nearly 9,000 left over.
Those refugees, who come primarily from Central America, are fleeing repressive governments, rampant gang violence, and economic desperation. They include small children who’ve made the harrowing journey north. They are effectively trapped in Tijuana, waiting for the United States to process their applications even though it’s indicated an unwillingness to accept refugees.
Along with the racist (and false) beliefs that Central American immigrants are prone to violence and breaking the law — both of which Trump also argues — supporters of the harsh measures that the US is using against asylum-seekers argue that these people take away precious and scarce resources.
But the fact is that there is abundance on this side of the border — and not just an abundance of golf courses. A study from earlier this year estimated that there are more than 11 million vacant housing units across the United States — far more than enough to house the existing half million homeless people already here, and millions of displaced people around the world yearning for a safe place to call home.
Asylum-seekers have the right under US law to enter the country and have their cases heard. But when it comes to the resources necessary to welcome refugees, it’s not a question of whether the US has them — it’s about how we choose to use them.
Ironically, border enforcement itself soaks up resources that could be used to set up people’s new lives in the United States rather than keep them out. The government may end up spending up to $200 million on the deployment of extra border troops alone by the end of 2018. That goes beyond the billions spent as a baseline for policing the border each year. Trump has called for 15,000 troops in total to be sent to the border — more than the number currently fighting in Afghanistan.
And speaking of that seemingly endless war: Military spending arguably constitutes the worst of the country’s misuse of its wealth. With a record $717 billion military budget passed by Congress this year, the well of funds for weapons and wars seems to be endless. A bipartisan commission recently called for raising the military budget even higher — something that hasn’t come up much in the conversation about national spending.
It’s worth noting that a lot of that spending goes toward military activities that displace people and turn them into refugees to begin with.
Unaffordable cities, struggling schools, and deteriorating infrastructure are problems in the United States. But they’re not caused by refugees. Those vexing features of American life sit alongside incredible excess.
The people who have made desperate voyages to the border are potential friends and neighbors, not threats. Their arrival should inspire a conversation about inequality in the United States, and the kind of politics that can provide all of us with what we need and deserve.
Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he studies migrant and refugee policies.