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The U.S. needs an immediate strategic shift at the southern border

A migrant waits on the Mexican side of the border
Associated Press/Marco Ugarte
A migrant waits on the Mexican side of the border Jan. 26, 2022.

With its decision to end Title 42 — the Trump-era policy that lets U.S officials at the southern border quickly expel migrants — on May 23, the Biden administration is preparing for a surge in border crossings.

“We anticipate migration levels will increase,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in an April 26 memo, “as smugglers will seek to take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants.”

Whether Title 42 actually will end on May 23 is unclear. More than 20 states asked a federal district court to keep Title 42 in place, and Judge Robert Summerhays announced that he will temporarily block the administration from implementing its plan. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are demanding a floor vote on Title 42, and some Democrats in tough reelection races are worried that the administration’s actions will hurt them in November.

What the United States needs, however, is less a response to Title 42 (whether it stays or goes) than a comprehensive strategy to address the structural changes in migration patterns at the southern border over the last decade.

Immigration-related encounters (such as arrests or expulsions) at the southern border reached a record 1.66 million in fiscal 2021. But while migrants increasingly flock to that border, their composition has changed markedly. Migrants at that border used to be overwhelmingly single adults from Mexico who were seeking work and who could be quickly deported back to Mexico. Starting in 2014, however, we’ve seen a surge in unaccompanied Central American children who were seeking asylum, then a surge in Central American families seeking asylum, and now more asylum-seekers from around the world, including Ukrainians who were displaced by Russia’s invasion.

While the makeup of migrants has changed, our approach has not. Due to our efforts over the last two decades to merge immigration enforcement with the need to weed out criminals, terrorists and other security threats, we now have a punitive system that treats all migrants as criminals and doesn’t work for either border officials or migrants.

We need a new framework that reflects the demographic shift in migrants at the border, and that creates two separate systems — one to receive and process asylum seekers and other vulnerable populations, and the other to apprehend and process other migrants who are trying to enter the United States illegally.

This new framework would encompass changes in managing migration, addressing crime, drugs, contraband, and terrorism, and investing in the region.

To better manage migration, we need to reconfigure border infrastructure and the asylum system so that we can receive asylum-seeking and vulnerable migrants, give them suitable accommodations and expedite decisions about them without overtaxing our immigration courts.

To do that, we need to build bigger, specialized Regional Migration Processing Centers, set up temporary housing for migrants until we have the larger centers in place, send more doctors and nurses to provide medical care for migrants, reassign asylum officers and interpreters to the border, authorize officers to decide more cases on their own and create new border courts and hire new judges.

But we must accompany these steps with a reformed process to decide whether asylum claims are valid and to deliver on the promise of “expeditiously” removing individuals who do not qualify under the law to stay. That means fully funding and deploying a dedicated cadre of border “asylum teams” of officers to conduct interviews and deliver full asylum decisions when merited, and a dedicated group of border immigration judges to process other border cases and appeals.

To address crime, drugs, contraband, and terrorism, we need to strengthen all three “pillars” of border security: personnel, technology, and infrastructure.

We need to fully staff ports of entry, strengthen oversight and accountability so that border agents maintain the highest standards of professionalism and integrity and hire across the immigration system so that agents are not assigned to other tasks.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs to complete the more than $700 million in technology improvements that policymakers have funded since 2017 and to better assess their effectiveness in maintaining border surveillance and situational awareness and in identifying and classifying border crossings.

And we need to rebuild roads to give agents access to the border, clear sightlines of plants and vegetation along the Rio Grande, upgrade and add physical barriers where they do the most good (rather than everywhere) and improve security at ports of entry and CBP Forward Operating Bases.

To invest in the region, we need to tackle migration at the southern border by addressing the country conditions that prompt migrants to leave and the factors that enable them to make the journey. While undertaking that decades-long effort, however, we can take some medium-term steps as well.

We need to boost Mexico’s capacity to process and integrate more asylum seekers and work with Mexico and other Latin American countries to manage migration flows, secure their borders and identify and dismantle smuggling organizations and cartels that facilitate unauthorized migration.

More broadly, we need to provide developmental assistance across the region and expand economic opportunity, working with regional partners to improve governance, attack corruption and better protect vulnerable populations from crime and violence. We also should resume in-country processing of potential refugee applicants in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Together, these steps would constitute a comprehensive approach to secure the border against crime, drugs and terrorism, and also to address unauthorized migration and meet our legal obligations to receive and decide asylum claims.

Theresa Cardinal Brown is the managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Immigration Immigration reform Immigration to the United States Politics of the United States U.S. southern border

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