More refugees from Central America means fewer illegal entries at the border

More refugees from Central America means fewer illegal entries at the border
© Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will decide the annual refugee admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2019. The decision involves not only the total number of refugees to admit, but from where to admit them.

Absent from the administration’s tough border security rhetoric is recognition that the number of refugees we admit, and where we admit them from, has a direct connection to the number of people showing up at the southern border to seek asylum. This oversight is not unique to the current administration. For years, the United States has admitted more refugees from outside the Western Hemisphere than within it.  

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In fiscal year 2016, when the Obama administration increased the refugee ceiling from 70,000 to 85,000, it allocated a paltry 3,000 slots, or 3.5 percent, to refugees from the Latin America and Caribbean region.  

In fiscal year 2017, when the Obama administration again significantly increased the refugee ceiling — this time from 85,000 to 110,000 — it allocated only 5,000 slots, or 4.5 percent, to refugees from the region.      

In fiscal year 2018, when the Trump administration substantially reduced the refugee ceiling to 45,000, it allocated a mere 1,500 slots, or 3.3 percent, to refugees from the region. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the same number of people apprehended along the southern border every day.

No wonder so many asylum-seekers from Central America are flocking to our southern border. We have failed to meaningfully incorporate them into the refugee admissions program.  

By comparison, during the same time period, we allocated nearly as many refugee slots for Europe/Central Asia (10,000), three times more for East Asia (30,000), eight times more for Africa (79,000), and nearly 10 times more for the Middle East/South Asia (91,500) than we did for the Americas region.  In 2015 alone, we allocated three-and-a-half times more refugee slots for the Middle East/South Asia (33,000) than we did for the Americas region in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — combined.    

In other words, 96 percent of the refugees admitted into the United States between 2016 and 2018 came from outside the Western Hemisphere.  

Yet, we know that most asylum-seekers showing up at the southern border come from inside, not outside, the region.    

The reality is that one of the best ways to reduce the number of asylum-seekers crossing the southern border — legally at ports of entry, or illegally between them — is to increase the number of refugees we admit from Latin America and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, no serious effort has been made to permanently account for this reality.  

To achieve border security while strengthening the integrity of our immigration system — and the refugee program specifically — the Trump administration can do two things:  

First, it can maintain the current 45,000 refugee admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2019, or even increase that number, while working with sending countries in this hemisphere to stem the violence that is fueling the exodus north. By proposing further cuts to refugee admissions, the administration either is signaling that the screening and vetting changes they so vigorously fought for are inadequate, or, alternatively, that the reasons for the reduction are not a strategic choice to secure the border and strengthen the integrity of the immigration system but, as immigration rights groups argue, hate-filled and immoral bigotry.  

Second, the Departments of Homeland Security and State should consider establishing permanent refugee/asylum officer positions inside the U.S. embassies in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — and maybe even Mexico. This would allow these refugee cases to be processed proactively, quickly and effectively, rather than reactively, and  would lower the cost to American taxpayers.  

It’s time to acknowledge that no amount of tough rhetoric will stop Central American asylum-seekers from coming to the United States, and ignoring that reality makes things worse. Unless we increase the number of refugees admitted from our own backyard we will not make a meaningful dent in the number of people showing up at our southern border.  

Trump administration officials repeatedly have stated that when it comes to immigration, and the refugee crisis specifically, they seek regional solutions to regional problems. Here’s their chance to prove that.  

Meryl Chertoff is executive director of the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.