Working with Mexico is the key to strong American border security

Working with Mexico is the key to strong American border security
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The recent decision by the Trump administration to step back from separating families detained at the border offers an opportunity to reflect on what immigration enforcement policies make the most sense going forward. Separating families is not the path forward, nor is it something that Americans, who prize their family values, will tolerate.

As a country of laws, the United States needs to make sure that potential immigrants enter the country through legal channels, while respecting the rights of those who seek legal protection. How do we strengthen border security while staying committed to due process and family values? Sensible options exist, and we should act on them.

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First, we should increase investment in the asylum system at the border to make certain that legitimate claims can be heard and decided expeditiously. Before 2014, most attempted border crossers were economic migrants, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Today, U.S.-Mexico border apprehensions are at the lowest level in 46 years, primarily due to broad improvements in the Mexican economy, education, and healthcare systems that have made it more attractive to stay in Mexico.

Most border detainees today are from Central America. The number of Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans attempting to cross the border jumped dramatically five years ago. While it has declined slightly, the number still remains high. This rise in the flow of Central Americans presents a different set of challenges because many are not purely economic migrants. Most are fleeing a toxic mix of poverty and violence in the region, and many hold legitimate grounds for asylum.

Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree that a significant investment in asylum officers and immigration judges to speed up processing at the border makes sense. More timely decision-making would likely help deter those without a substantiated case and provide a fairer process for those who deserve protection.

Speeding up asylum would also shorten the time people need to be in detention. However, it is important to note that proven alternatives to detention are potentially a far better option, especially for families. Those awaiting hearings could be released with their location monitored through a case management system that the Department of Homeland Security has already tested and found extremely effective.

Another strategic option is for the U.S. government to view Mexico as an ally rather than an adversary at the border. Mexico has deported far more Central Americans than the United States in recent years, a major reason that unauthorized immigration flows remain quite low at the southern border. Thus, Mexico  acts essentially as a buffer to stop potential illegal crossers before they reach the United States.

The Mexican government now faces strains on its own asylum system and capacity issues in its immigration detention centers. Following the Mexican election yesterday, there is a risk that a new government will decide it has no incentive to continue to collaborate with the United States on slowing migration flows from Central America, especially in light of the tense relations it has with the Trump administration.

The time is ripe for more creative cooperation with Mexico around dealing with Central American migrants, as part of our own national interest. The U.S. government could help Mexico improve both its enforcement capacities and its asylum system. We are still far from the day when most Central American migrants would choose to stay in Mexico, but much can be done to address legitimate asylum claims before migrants ever reach the U.S. border and help Mexico welcome those Central Americans who would prefer to stay in that country rather than continue northward.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, any border solution must address the root causes of migration. Today, the vast majority of those trying to get into the United States through the southern border are from three Central American countries that face enduring poverty and endemic violence. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have endorsed efforts to invest in economic development and build rule of law in these countries, working hand in hand with the Mexican government.

Yet, these efforts appear to be flagging, with little high-level attention from Congress or the administration. The solution to staunching the flow of Central Americans desperate to leave their countries requires commitment by the United States, together with Mexico, to help these countries build more stable societies and economies.

As a country of laws, the United States has a vested interest in guaranteeing that its immigration laws are respected, but must do so with respect for due process and the family values that underpin our national identity. We will be stronger and more successful if we undertake these efforts in partnership with our southern neighbor. This approach should appeal to all Americans, regardless of their political persuasion.

Henry Cisneros served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 to 1997. Carlos Gutierrez served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2005 to 2009.