Deterrence alone won’t secure the border: Here are four immediate actions
In recent weeks, the Supreme Court ruled that President Biden can end President Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers, although the administration must continue enforcing Trump’s Title 42 policy empowering the government to block asylum seekers from entering the U.S. on public health grounds.
Meanwhile, 53 migrants died in the sweltering heat of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, and a Customs and Border Protection investigation found that patrol agents used unnecessary force with Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas.
These are the fruits of a deterrence-only strategy that is doing little to stem the record numbers of migrants who continue to gather at our Southern border. We need a new approach that recognizes the need to address two challenges separately — the growing number of asylum seekers, and the threats to our border from smuggling, contraband and migrants trying to evade capture.
For asylum seekers, as outlined further below, we need to expand processing outside the United States, create more legal work visas for immigrants who can fill unmet labor needs, process asylum claims more quickly and beef up resources for refugee processing, case management, immigration courts and other parts of the system.
I’ve worked on immigration and border policy for some three decades, and I don’t remember a time when events at the border were so widely criticized by both parties. Democrats decry the increasingly harsh measures designed to deter migrants, while Republicans insist that more deterrence is necessary.
For most of the last half-century, we have sought to prevent or deter migrants from crossing illegally. We’ve tried to make border crossings harder and more dangerous by building barriers and fences to funnel migrants to more remote and less hospitable parts of the border, punishing those caught by prosecuting them for criminal violations and/or throwing them into immigration detention.
At times, that policy has worked. In recent years, however, rising numbers of migrants from places other than Mexico, increasing desperation among migrants and the growing sophistication of smugglers have overwhelmed our asylum system. The challenge has bedeviled every administration since President Obama.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that any of the policies under Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden have had long-term impacts on the number of migrants who travel to the border, especially to claim asylum. In fact, data since 2014 shows migrants have adapted as our tactics have changed.
When, for instance, Obama started closing ports of entry to asylum seekers in 2016 (an ongoing practice), smugglers brought in migrants to cross between ports. When Trump sent families back to Mexico under his “remain in Mexico” policies, parents sent their unaccompanied children across and then tried to enter as single adults or evade apprehension. When Title 42 returned migrants to Mexico within hours of their apprehension, repeat attempts to cross the border skyrocketed to levels unprecedented since the 1990s. The arrival of migrants whom we can’t send back to their countries because Washington lacks diplomatic relations with them is a boon to smugglers who have funneled more desperate Nicaraguans, Cubans and Venezuelans to the border.
No matter how much deterrence we try, the desperation of migrants and the profit motive of smuggling organizations means that harsher methods and penalties will likely result in more tragedies like that of the tractor-trailer in San Antonio.
It’s past time to rethink our deterrence-only strategy. Addressing the root causes of the rising numbers of immigrants is a long-term venture, but we can take some immediate steps to address current migration patterns.
First, increase Mexico’s capacity to process and integrate more asylum seekers. The U.S. should help Mexico’s asylum and migration agency increase staff and offices, and both nations should agree to permit the processing of U.S. asylum or refugee claims in Mexico.
Second, expand work visas. To enable immigrants to continue strengthening America’s economy, policymakers should expand work visas and streamline visa processing, making them more available to people throughout Central America. This will divert many people out of smugglers’ hands and out of the asylum system as the only avenue for entering the U.S.
Third, beef up resources across the immigration system. Backlogs in immigration courts and visa processing delays at consular posts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are one reason that migrants see asylum as the only viable avenue to legally enter the U.S. To specifically address the unprecedented arrivals at the border, policymakers should build Regional Migration Processing Centers that include temporary housing for migrants, medical care and all necessary staff for migrant processing, case management and adjudication.
Concurrently, process asylum claims more rapidly. Congress should provide resources to create and operate border systems that decide cases of arriving asylum-seekers more quickly while ensuring due process. Ideally, the process should take no longer than six months. Processing migrants into backlogs in immigration courts and releasing them to the interior benefits smugglers who correctly promise that many of them will get to stay, facilitating large group arrivals that overwhelm border capacity.
The current border situation didn’t start overnight, and these changes won’t fix things overnight, but pushing the same deterrence policies isn’t working. We need to try something new, and soon.
Theresa Cardinal Brown is the managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
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