It is Time for a Rational, Effective and Humane Response
Long before we saw the unprecedented numbers of families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border that we are seeing today, the Trump administration was “crying wolf” while at the same time implementing policies that lit a match to what was a manageable issue. Instead of a rational, effective and humane response to what was a steadily growing problem, the Trump administration has been extremely busy over the last two years tearing down the very policies that could have prevented the situation we face today, replacing them with policies that only work to exacerbate the issue. What we are seeing now should be no surprise.
“Given the failure of this administration’s border policies, any proposal by this administration to address the situation we face today should be viewed with serious skepticism,” said Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice. “Nothing is perfect, but we have seen that the Trump policies of the last two years have not only failed, they have led us to more serious problems. It is time for a new approach – one that is rational, effective and humane.”
Asylum-Seeking Families is Not a New Issue – There Was a Steady Increase in Apprehended Families Over the Last Five Years, Plenty of Time to Appropriately Prepare and Dissipate the Issue
“Central American families seeking asylum at the U.S. – Mexico border is not new. Since 2012, the number of family apprehensions has been steadily increasing – from less than 10% of those apprehended at the border in fiscal year 2012 to 40% in fiscal year 2018,” said David Leopold, Counsel to DHS Watch. “Given this data, the Trump administration should have known and prepared for a continuing growth in families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Figure 1. Family and Unaccompanied Minor Share of Southwest Border Apprehensions, FY 2012-19*
Source: Migration Policy Institute
Given the Data, the Trump Administration Should Have Anticipated A Continuing Increase in Apprehended Families and Prepared for It – Instead They Closed Down Solutions
Because the data shows a steadily increasing number of apprehended families at the U.S.-Mexico border over the last five years, the Trump administration should have used its first two years to address the situation and prevent what we are seeing today. Indeed, the previous administration was working on various programs to address the steady and manageable problem before they left office. But instead of continuing and growing those solutions, this administration ended many of them.
- End of In-Country and Regional 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 to take the dangerous 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. Now President Trump is threatening to hold off the aid Congress specifically appropriated that could address root causes of migration.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ending TPS for Central Americans Exacerbates 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 these programs.
- Failures to Address the Change in Demographic at Border Facilities: By failing to recognize the steadily changing demographic from Mexican single men looking for a job to families seeking asylum over the last five years, DHS has not converted its approach and infrastructure to process more asylum applications and address the needs of families completing arduous journeys with few resources. The result of failing to prepare: two children recently passed away while in CBP custody and others are at risk and releasing people without any way to track and ensure their appearance at immigration hearings.
Trump Administration’s Military, Enforcement and Deterrence Response is Ineffective and Exacerbates the Problem
Instead of continuing and growing the policies and programs described above, the Trump administration has doubled down on a military, enforcement, and deterrence response. This approach fails to understand the root of the issue – growing numbers of families fleeing violence. There is very little a border wall or more military at the border can do to deter a mom saving her children from severe violence and poverty.
- 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.
- More Border Wall Does Nothing to Deter Families Escaping Violence: More border wall at tremendous cost to taxpayers, landowners and the environment does nothing to deter families turning themselves into any border official they can find, whether at a port of entry or in between them.
- Tear Gas: Instead of effective solutions to handle the humanitarian situation on the border, the Border Patrol resorted to tear gassing desperate people last year. Despite this draconian, dangerous and inhumane response, the numbers of families seeking asylum at the border continues to grow.
- 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.
- Closing Avenues for Asylum at Ports of Entry Fails to Deter Asylum Seekers: As outlined above, “metering”, the policy by which DHS drastically limits the number of people who may apply for asylum at border checkpoints, pushes people to apply for asylum in between border checkpoints; exactly what the Secretary and the CBP Chief claim they want to end.
A Rational, Effective, and Humane Response
While no response is perfect, it is clear that the Trump administration’s military, enforcement, and deterrence response has failed and has only served to fuel the problem. This is a humanitarian issue which requires a 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: The vast majority of families released from ICE detention show up for immigration hearings, especially if they are applicants for asylum. Therefore, we should make better use of smart, effective, and cost-efficient alternatives to detention, rather than traditional incarceration, for those seeking asylum.
- 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 threatening 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.