Use brains, not brawn, to handle migrant crisis

The huge wave of families and unaccompanied children arriving in South Texas from Central America has ignited a debate on how to best dissuade the influx.

Many have proposed managing the problem at the border by beefing up the Border Patrol with more agents. Some have even called for the National Guard to be sent in as a stopgap measure. A case could be made for modest staffing increases to the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, where the number of overall unauthorized migrant apprehensions has more than doubled since 2011, but it is important to note that adding more boots on the ground would do little or nothing to stem the flow of children across the border.  The real solutions lie in addressing the push factors in the source countries.

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The reason the solution is not at the border is simple. The child migrants are actively turning themselves in to the Border Patrol and are therefore not deterred by a large U.S. government presence along the border. On the contrary, they seek out the Border Patrol, which turns them over to the Department of Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services in most cases then releases the children into the custody of family members.

Having more agents patrol the border is not the solution, but that does not mean the U.S. government is sufficiently staffed and equipped to handle the challenge. The White House request for $3.8 billion in emergency funding clearly demonstrates as much. There is an urgent need for more appropriate facilities to house unaccompanied children, which is mainly the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services, but additional capacity and better conditions are also needed in Border Patrol facilities, where in theory the children spend up to three days but because of processing bottlenecks are in reality spending much more time.

A far bigger bottleneck exists in the Department of Justice’s immigration Court system. Data from Syracuse University shows that people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (which together account for over 70 percent of the unaccompanied minors arriving) wait an average of 433 days to have their case completed. The inability of the government to quickly yet fairly make a determination on the eligibility of the child for asylum or protection as a victim of human trafficking is adding to the perception that children from Central America who make it to the border are being allowed to stay. Moving resources from elsewhere in the country to expedite the hearing process is necessary and can dissuade further migration, but  this must be done in collaboration with the network of non-profit organizations that help provide pro-bono counsel in these types of immigration cases.

Some have proposed rolling back the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which put in place special protections for unaccompanied minors arriving from non-contiguous countries (in this case Central America), as another more dramatic way to expedite the hearings.  But the law was put in place, with strong bi-partisan support, as a way to protect children caught up in trafficking and those risks still exist, so eroding these protections seems quite risky. 

More important than trying to manage this problem at the U.S. border is the need to address the underlying “push” factors that are compelling children and mothers to risk the perilous journey through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S.  The three countries in question are numbers one, four, and five on the list of countries with the world’s highest homicides rates according to the United Nations.  In addition, youth gangs dominate many of the poor communities that children are fleeing to escape extortions, kidnapping and sexual abuse as well as murder.  Furthermore, poor educational options and grinding poverty condemn young people to low skill low pay jobs or joining the informal and illegal economy.  For many, the choice is to join the gangs to avoid becoming a target, or flee. 

Reversing this trend is extremely difficult and may prove impossible unless Central American governments and the United States can agree on and implement a long-term strategy.  Such a strategy should aim to strengthen local government and fight corruption; increase community resilience to crime and violence through education and community programs; step up investment in gang intervention programs; build quality education and market driven programs for workforce development; and, strengthen the rule of law and accountability for corruption and abuse by authorities.  Many of these ideas have been tried before and failed because the necessary political commitment in the U.S. and Central America to see these initiatives through is lacking.  Instead we continue to pursue short-term strategies and a border security policy that simply cannot stem the tide and address the underlying causes of this humanitarian crisis.

Wilson is a senior associate for the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. Olson is associate director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center.