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A Rational, Effective, and Humane Response to Steadily Increasing Numbers of Asylum Seekers at the U.S. Mexico Border

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Trump’s Draconian Approach is a Failure and Only Works to Exacerbate Issues

In a recent op ed, former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner concluded that our border enforcement system was fundamentally designed to interdict and deter individuals (mostly single Mexican young men) coming to the U.S. for work. But the current flow of migrants has been steadily shifting for at least five years to include an increasing number of asylum-seeking family groups from Central America turning themselves in, while the number of single Mexican young men has drastically decreased over almost two decades. Central American families are driven from their home countries by violence, systematic extortion, and lack of government and law-enforcement to keep them safe at home. Our policies have not been adjusted to address this new reality.  

Because our new reality is steadily shifting into a humanitarian issue – asylum seekers turning themselves in to authorities – to be effective, our response should be based in humanitarian principles. But the Trump administration’s response has been to double down on a law enforcement and military strategy to address yesteryear’s issue. It’s no surprise then that Trump’s strategy is not only failing it is exacerbating humanitarian issues on the border.   

The Rational, Effective, and Humane Response

We should be investing in a regional approach to a regional refugee crisis in a sensible and multi-faceted way while simultaneously marshalling resources at the border for an effective humanitarian response:

  • Immediately Increase Port-of-Entry Infrastructure, Personnel and Resources for Processing Asylum Applicants: We should retool and grow border infrastructure and retrain personnel to receive and process asylum-seeking families efficiently, fairly and in a humane manner at the border.
  • More Immigration Judges: We should be increasing immigration judges for fair and more timely asylum hearings.
  • Greater Use of Alternatives to Detention: We should make better use of smart, effective, and cost-efficient alternatives to detention that help ensure families and individuals are accountable to the law.
  • Immediately Restart and Ramp-Up Regional and In-Country Refugee Processing: To manage the flow of people in a humane manner and to disincentivize dangerous black market migration, we should be developing structures, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and partners in the region, to receive and adjudicate refugee and other claims before people travel to the U.S. border, which includes restarting and growing the Central American Minors program ended by Trump.
  • Deter Smuggling: We should ramp up anti-smuggling and intelligence initiatives with regional partners.
  • Address Root Causes: Former Vice President Joe Biden said last year, “The Border Won’t Be Secure Until Central America Is,” so we should be working with Central America to address root causes, not threats to cut off aid by presidential Tweet. Two former officials with expertise in Central America, former Ambassador Roberta Jacobson and former National Security Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo, have provided details of a plan to address root causes, including a point-by-point plan.   

Trump’s Failed Military and Law Enforcement Approach Has Exacerbated the Problem

By doubling down on yesteryear’s draconian military and law enforcement response at the border, the steadily growing humanitarian issue is going from bad to worse.   

  • Family Separation as a Form of Deterrence Was a Failed and Inhumane Policy: Not only was the Trump family separation policy cruel and inhumane with thousands of families separated, some even to this day, but it failed to achieve its intended purpose of being a deterrence policy.
  • Drastic and Unjustifiable Limits on Asylum Application Processing at Ports of Entry Have Led to More Dangerous Crossings: Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost have both made pleas for asylum seekers to seek protection at border checkpoints where asylum applications could efficiently and humanely be made. But instead of marshalling resources to channel applications to ports of entry, DHS has implemented “metering”, the policy by which DHS drastically limits the number of people who may apply for asylum at border checkpoints. Just 40-100 per day are allowed to apply at the San Ysidro border checkpoint despite massive increases in the border budget over the last decade. This in spite of a finding by the DHS Inspector General that metering is having the effect of pushing people toward applying for asylum in between border checkpoints, exactly what the Secretary and the CBP Chief claim they want to end. Indeed, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council compiled DHS data and found that while DHS was limiting asylum flows at border checkpoints, families were increasing in between border checkpoints.
  • Failures to Channel More Resources for More Immigration Judges: At a time when ICE has no problem exceeding the appropriated detention bed budget, DOJ claims it is running out of money for more judges needed to process asylum claims in a fair and efficient manner.  And so the backlog of asylum and other cases continues to grow.
  • Failures to Address the Change in Demographic at the Border Results in Death: By failing to recognize the steadily changing demographic from Mexican single men looking for a job to families seeking asylum, DHS has not converted its approach and infrastructure to process more asylum applications and address the needs of families just completing an arduous journey with few resources. The result of failing to prepare:  two children recently passed away while in CBP custody and others are at risk.   
  • Tear Gas: Instead of effective solutions to handle the humanitarian situation on the border, the Border Patrol resorted to tear gassing desperate people.   
  • Military at Border: With increasing numbers of families seeking protection at the border and turning themselves in, this is no job for the military at a cost of more than $200 million.  Instead, that money could be much better spent on building infrastructure and adding more personnel to handle asylum applications.
  • End of In-Country Refugee Processing Causes More to Take Dangerous Journey to Border: The Trump administration ended the Central American Minors (CAM) program that enabled young people with strong claims for refugee status to apply in their home countries rather than take the dangerous journey to the border in search of protection. Efforts by the Obama administration in 2016 to work with the UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees) to set up refugee reception and processing centers in the region have dried up under Trump, with just 525 refugees resettled in the U.S. from all of Latin America in fiscal year 2018. With no way to apply for refugee protection at home, Central Americans in need of protection see no other way to safety than take the risky journey north to apply for asylum at the U.S. – Mexico border.
  • Foreign Aid to Address Root Causes Has Been Threatened and Decreased: Tweeting threats to cut off an already decreasing amount of aid is the exact opposite of what is needed to address root causes of migration from Central America.  As Reuters summarized, “In 2016, the United States provided some $131 million in aid to Guatemala, $98 million to Honduras, and $68 million to El Salvador, according to U.S. data. By next year, those sums were projected to fall to $69 million for Guatemala, $66 million for Honduras and $46 million for El Salvador – a reduction of almost 40 percent for the three nations.”  Congress recently pushed back on the Trump administration cuts and appropriated $527.6 million to address root causes.
  • Ending TPS Will Exacerbate the Problem: Our own government has found that ending TPS programs for Central American will exacerbate problems in sending countries and stimulate increased out-migration. Yet, the Trump administration remains intent upon ending the programs.  
  • Draconian and Unlawful Policy Changes to Asylum That Leave Desperate People in Dangerous Situations: At the end of last year, DHS announced it would force asylum seekers in need of protection to remain in Mexico while they await their asylum hearings that could take up to a year.  The New York Times described growing camps along the U.S. – Mexico border last year as “fetid misery” where the humanitarian situation went from bad to worse. Moreover, the first hearings under this policy proved to be a bureaucratic disaster that resulted in wasted time and resources for DHS and the immigration court and two of three asylum seekers being unable to attend their first hearings.  The second day of hearings was more of the same, prompting a judge to ask a basic procedural question: “How does the court serve them if we do not have an address?” The DHS response: “I don’t have the answer.” One asylum seeker has already reported giving up on his application given the bureaucratic labyrinth, fear of being locked up in immigration detention, and a perceived inevitability of deportation back to the danger he and his family fled.  On top of the failed “Remain in Mexico” plan, the Trump administration has also tried, but was recently stopped by a court, to use executive power to close off asylum applications between ports of entry, a provision specifically enacted by Congress.   

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said: “If you listened to the Trump administration, you might believe there is an unprecedented law enforcement crisis at the border. Reality, facts, and data show otherwise. Instead of moaning about the issue with made-for-TV hysteria, administration officials should take a step back and realize their approach has it all wrong. This is not yesteryear’s border issue. Instead, we are faced with a humanitarian issue that requires a humanitarian response, not a military and law enforcement strategy created to address yesteryear’s issue. It’s no wonder they have failed and only made matters worse. Imagine what could be done if they shifted resources they’ve ineffectively marshalled for their failed military and enforcement response — more than $200 million for the military on the border, billions for a wasteful and ineffective wall — into solutions that match the challenge. Even with just a portion of the money wasted on the wall and some intelligent strategies to use that money effectively, we would be a lot farther down the road towards addressing this humanitarian issue. Certainly for the same amount of money or less, much more will be accomplished than by a showy but inappropriate stationing of military on the border and the building of ‘more wall’ at U.S. taxpayer’s expense.”