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Trump’s Failed Deterrence Strategy and Cynical Political Stunts at the Border: There’s a Better Way Forward

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“Actually addressing the root causes of the problem in Central America and humanely managing applications for asylum from families fleeing violence are far, far down the list of Trump administration priorities.” – Pili Tobar, America’s Voice

The Trump Administration remains hellbent on failed deterrence-only policies and cynical political stunts to underscore their narrative that the border region is descending into crisis and chaos. Their newest escalations – including slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in Central American aid that could be used to stabilize those countries; seeking sweeping new powers to advance draconian changes to asylum and detention policy; and presidential tweets threatening to close the border – are similarly doomed to fail.

Pili Tobar, Deputy Director of America’s Voice, said: “Trump, Nielsen and their team continue to fundamentally misunderstand the challenge we’re facing and their goals and motivations are shamelessly transparent. Instead of seeking to advance humane and pragmatic policy to de-escalate the situation, they are motivated by what will help Trump build a wall, get applause at his rallies, look tough, and burnish his political brand. Actually addressing the root causes of the problem in Central America and humanely managing applications for asylum from families fleeing violence are far, far down the list of Trump administration priorities.”

Here are reminders of why deterrence-only policies are doomed to keep failing followed by what a real workable and humane vision would look like (hint, it doesn’t involve a wall, slashing Central American aid, or closing the border).

A failed strategy: deterrence-only policy hasn’t worked and created chaos.

The Trump administration’s obsessive focus on deterrence has been an abject failure and exacerbated the current humanitarian crisis. The Trump response to the multidimensional refugee and migration challenge posed by deteriorating conditions in Central America is one dimensional: deter those seeking safety and opportunity with deterrence supported by a big border wall.

“Deal with the root causes of the problem in Central America? No. Restart in-country processing operations terminated by the Trump administration? No. Work with allies and the UNHCR to protect refugees in the region and facilitate orderly resettlement? No. Adequately and immediately surge processing and humanitarian assistance to the border? No. Use alternatives to detention proven to save money and improve people showing up for court appearances? No.  No wonder Trump’s simplistic and futile strategy has failed so miserably,” Tobar added.

New draconian policies doomed to fail: slashing Central American aid is exactly the wrong direction and will inflame the situation.

The Trump administration’s new push to slash Central American aid and seek sweeping and draconian new powers to deport people stems from the same misdiagnosis of the nature of the challenge at hand that has exacerbated the current situation. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post points out, even Trump’s CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan acknowledges the importance of root causes and regional stability funding. In March, McAleenan told reporters: “We need to continue to support the governments in Central America to improve economic opportunities to address poverty and hunger and to improve governance and security.” As Sargent adds:

“In saying these things, Trump’s own border chief is stating what is now widely understood: These migration surges are largely driven by terrible civil conditions at home. Thus, what is called for above all is a regional strategy designed to discourage them in the first place.”

Instead, the State Department and others are scrambling to make a policy based on Trump’s Tweets that he is slashing hundreds of million in aid that is essential in addressing these root causes.

Cynical politics and exploitative stunts: For 2020 purposes, Trump is seeking to push blame onto Congress instead of taking responsibility themselves.

The Trump administration as a whole, and DHS in particular, has been drumming up hysteria about the humanitarian crisis that their failed strategy has exacerbated. Their actions – including the B-roll of the families under the bridge and the images of detained migrant children paraded before reporters waiting for CBP Commissioner McAleenan to speak in El Paso – are cynical and exploitative stunts, more about politics, optics, looking “tough” and Trump 2020 than problem-solving.

As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote in a must-read piece titled, “Emboldened Trump hopes a cruel border crisis will get him reelected in 2020,” we’re facing a “complicated issue, but you don’t need a Ph.D in international relations to see that the American president is hellbent on making things worse. And the road to this hellscape starts under a bridge in El Paso.”

A better way forward: the components of a sensible, workable strategy.

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch, a program of America’s Voice, and former Chief Counsel for USCIS in DHS from 2014 through 2016, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs for the Department of State, and former Chief Counsel to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security in the U.S. House of Representatives, has issued a series of detailed analyses on where the administration’s policy agenda went horribly wrong to exacerbate the situation and lead to this moment (see here) while outlining what a rational, effective, and humane response looks like.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.