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Caravan hysteria is unwarranted — many more have come before

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The hysteria over the caravan of Central American asylum-seekers traveling north towards the United States is spiraling out of proportion. A calm review of the facts and the historical context of migration from this hemisphere make clear that the United States has the laws and policies in place to respond humanely — in keeping with our values and our laws.

There are varied estimates of the number of people in the caravan, ranging from the Mexican government’s estimate of 3,630 migrants to the United Nations spokesperson’s estimate of 7,000 migrants. According to the Washington Post, Mexican officials report that they have processed 1,700 asylum cases. Whether the caravan will grow in numbers or dissipate remains to be seen.

{mosads}What we do know is that the United States has handled much larger influxes of asylum-seekers. And we did so without sacrificing our laws and our values.

Cuba long has been a source of asylum-seekers, as Haiti has been. In 1980, for example, a mass migration of asylum-seekers, known as the Mariel boatlift, brought approximately 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians to South Florida over a six-month period. In 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 37,618 Haitians who had set sail to the United States and took many of them to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. While the treatment of the Haitians was not our finest hour as a nation, we did pre-screen those at Guantanamo for credible fear and return others to Haiti with the option of in-country refugee processing. The estimates of migrants in the caravan are comparable to the number of Cubans (7,163) the U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol picked up in fiscal year 1997.

The civil wars in Central America during the 1980s prompted asylum-seekers that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Data on asylum cases filed with the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) show that about 126,000 Nicaraguans, 126,300 Salvadorans and 41,942 Guatemalans applied for asylum in the United States from fiscal year 1981 through 1990.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in November 1998, then-Attorney General Janet Reno designated temporary protected status (TPS) for unauthorized Hondurans and Nicaraguans in the United States. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration decided to grant TPS to Salvadorans following two earthquakes that rocked El Salvador. The number of Central Americans who received these various temporary protections approached 270,000.

For those who are fearful that bad actors are hiding amid the asylum-seekers in the caravan, rest assured that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) puts all such migrants through rigorous border security screening systems. CBP collects biometric data, performs background checks, and runs them through a host of criminal and national security databases.

Lest we forget, border apprehensions of all irregular migrants (including asylum-seekers) are now at historic lows. From a peak of 1.6 million in fiscal year 2000, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended just under 304,000 last fiscal year. Research conducted by Stephanie Leutert at the University of Texas found that in fiscal year 2017 less than 0.1 percent of those apprehended — 228 migrants — were members of the MS-13 gang.

We do not need to send military troops to the border; rather, we need to adequately staff the asylum offices and immigration courts at the border. Funding for asylum officers and immigration judges has not been commensurate with the substantial increases in border security funding, despite the obvious interconnections among these functions. We also need to reinstitute in-country refugee processing in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and extend it to include adults as well as minors. Cutting assistance to Mexico and Central America — which President Trump suggests would punish the source countries into stopping the migration — most likely would exacerbate the underlying problems and increase the number of people fleeing north.

It’s time to calm down and remember that we are a nation of laws and a people of values. We can handle this.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration.

Tags Asylum seeker Central American migrant caravan Donald Trump Immigration to the United States refugees

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