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Trump’s Epic Failure at the Border: They are Failing, they are Cynically Exploiting Their Failure, and Now They Want More Money and Authority to Keep Failing

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What a Real Alternative Looks Like

The Trump strategy for our southern border is an epic failure. The deterrence-only, build-a-wall, send-the-troops, separate-the-families, lock-em-up, border-centric response to a regional refugee and migration challenge is blowing up in their faces. Now they are trying to blame Congress and get rewarded for their failure.  

Let’s call it as it is. The Trump administration’s approach has failed, it was always doomed to fail, and unless overhauled, it will continue to fail. That’s because they fundamentally misunderstand the scope and dynamics of the challenge. The idea that we should give the architects of that failure more money and authority to do more of the same defies common sense.

Epic Failure: Trump’s Policies Have Exacerbated and Worsened the Situation

As we explained in detail yesterday, the Trump administration’s obsessive focus on deterrence has exacerbated and worsened the current humanitarian crisis. The claim that this is a national security crisis requiring soldiers at the border, a medieval wall and cruel policies such as the separation of families fundamentally misreads the scope of the challenge. Central Americans from northern triangle nations are fleeing widespread violence, failing states and deepening poverty. No amount of deterrence at the border is going to stop parents attempting to save the lives of their children from seeking safety. No amount of deterrence is going to stop a Guatemalan family fleeing fallow fields in search of food security. The idea that deterrence at the border is the solution to these dynamics is myopic in the extreme. Witness Trump’s unwillingness to release Congressionally-approved aid to Central America – surely one of the only ways to reduce the refugee and migrant flow over time. Failure to address root causes due to the Trump’s erratic nature is but one of the elements of this administration’s failed strategy (read a good related piece from Dara Lind at Vox on the topic here).

Cynical Exploitation: DHS is mounting a PR Offensive in Quest for Money and Authority

DHS has been drumming up hysteria about the humanitarian crisis that their failed strategy has exacerbated. They do so to please the boss, seek more money from Congress, and push Congress to gut asylum and detention laws so they can send asylum-seeking families back to the violence they fled – with no meaningful due process. They don’t get it because they view what’s going on through ideological blinders. They believe that those fleeing these three failing states are not refugees, do not deserve protection and are trying to game the system. Because of this narrow-minded view, their strategy is aimed at reversing the incentives for those coming in search of protection. And because many if not most of those coming to seek protection are fleeing violence, deterrence alone just won’t work. As for their cynical public relations strategy, witness what happened yesterday. Ahead of the El Paso speech by CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, in which he hyped the crisis, blamed Congress, and pleaded for more money and authority, the El Paso Times noted, migrant children were detained just ahead of the speech and “were walked past reporters waiting for McAleenan to speak” – an image that USA Today reporter Alan Gomez likened to a children’s “perp walk” used by prosecutors in high-profile criminal arrests of adults. The Trump administration’s circular logic seems to be this: advance deterrence-only policies; watch them fail; and highlight the resulting chaos to justify more funding and cruelty. This seems more attuned to maintaining Trump’s political brand as tough guy than on devising a workable regional strategy.

What a Real and Workable Alternative Would Look Like

This is not the first time the United States or the international community has had to deal with a refugee and migration challenge. There is a well-developed and largely successful template that has been used in situations around the globe, from Southeast Asia in the wake of Vietnam War, in the Middle East as a result of the Syrian civil war, in Africa as the result of internal and regional conflicts, and more. The international consensus, which used to be led by the United States in conjunction with the UNHCR is as follows: protect those in danger, starting with safe haven in the countries nearby as well as in-country refugee processing programs; work to create the conditions for their safe return; if not feasible or secure, mobilize the international community to mount a refugee resettlement program for those in need of a permanent solution.

Based on this wealth of experience, here is how these principles of international refugee protection could be applied in this case:

  1. Mount a robust effort – call it a Marshall Plan for Central America – to reverse the conditions that give rise to refugees and migrants seeking safety and opportunity outside of their home countries;
  2. Work with countries in our hemisphere to forge a refugee protection and refugee resettlement program that will enable those seeking safety to find it, those who qualify for protection to secure it, and those for whom resettlement and family reunion make sense to receive it. What this might look like: re-starting in-country refugee processing programs in the northern triangle nations; working with Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico to protect those fleeing; and coupling “first asylum” with a resettlement program undertaken by the U.S., Canada, willing South American nations, and more.
  3. For those who make it to the border to exercise their legal right to request asylum, make sure these life-and-death decisions are made on the basis of full and fair proceedings. And for those who pass the credible fear test as determined by trained asylum officers (currently, 80% do!), release them through proven and cost-effective case management programs to relatives, faith communities and community groups to ensure that they show up for their subsequent hearings and the integrity of the asylum system is maintained.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

DHS is cynically mounting a PR campaign in hopes of shifting the blame to Congress, gutting our asylum and detention laws, and getting more authority to deter, detain and deport those fleeing violence. They do not need new money and authority, they need a new strategy.

An intelligent approach would size up the challenge and launch a multi-pronged strategy that stretches from the communities that give rise to refugee and migrant flows in the northern triangle, to countries in the region who should be worked with, rather than bullied, to help with refugee protection and refugee processing, to humanitarian assistance and asylum processing capacity at the border, to alternatives to detention that ensure asylum-seekers follow through on their asylum requests and respect the decisions of the adjudicators.

But this administration is more interested in the boss’s brand, the politics of the border fight, and simplistic strategies that are doomed to fail. Before Congress even considers giving this crowd one more penny or one more ounce of authority, they should demand accountability for their epic failure, demand a workable strategy that is based on regional realities rather than nativist ideology, and insist on a new team of leaders capable of doing more than failing, screaming crisis, and asking to be rewarded for it.

(See much more via the recent piece from Ur Jaddou and DHS Watch: “A Rational, Effective, and Humane Response to Steadily Increasing Numbers of Asylum Seekers at the U.S. Mexico Border.”)