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Migrant caravan: The only solution is to let them in

Migrant caravan: The only solution is to let them in
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Americans concluded their Thanksgiving holiday weekend with scenes of toddlers from Central America being tear-gassed at the San Diego-Tijuana border on Sunday. As the smoke lifted, one thing became clear: This was chaos manufactured by the Trump administration to bolster its false narrative of a border "crisis." 

Administration officials now see an opening to press for increased militarization of the border. On Monday, Trump threatened to close down the entire border if Mexico didn't send migrants back home and exhorted Congress to "fund the wall."

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Despite Trump's political grandstanding, the only viable policy for the United States is to let the Central Americans make their petitions for asylum as expeditiously as possible.  

Central American migrants, who for weeks had made an arduous trek through Mexico, are waiting in Tijuana for their chance to apply for political asylum in the United States. Mexican authorities opened a sports complex in Tijuana for the estimated 5,000 people who had traveled north in several "caravans." But conditions in the temporary shelter are dire. People lack adequate sanitation, there is barely enough food, and the nights are freezing. U.S. border officials claim they can only handle between 40 and 100 asylum claims a day, causing the Central Americans to feel frustrated and increasingly desperate. 

On Sunday, a fraction of the larger migrant group decided to march peacefully to the San Isidro border entry point to dramatize their plight. A much smaller group broke away and attempted to scale the border fence. U.S. authorities said 69 people had managed to cross and were detained on the U.S. side.

There was a brief altercation between a few young men and Mexican police, even as others standing nearby exhorted the youths to remain peaceful. President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE claimed several U.S. border guards had been "badly hurt" by rocks thrown over the fence, which San Diego Border Patrol officials later denied. It's unclear whether the youth who taunted the border guards were with the caravan or not.

What is clear is that Trump is doing all he can to undermine the asylum system. The lack of an adequate infrastructure to process asylum petitions at the border is a question of political will, not resources. If the president can mobilize more than 5,000 troops to the border, to do essentially nothing, surely it is possible to dispatch trained asylum officers to expedite the Central Americans' petitions. 

Instead, Trump is proposing measures that are not legally or politically viable. A federal judge already struck down the administration's attempt to rewrite asylum law by requiring petitioners to apply for asylum only at designated entry points (current law allows people to apply for asylum regardless of how or where they cross the border).

Trump wants Mexico to repatriate Central American migrants or hold them in Mexico until their asylum cases are resolved. But by law, Mexico cannot forcibly return Central Americans who claim to be fleeing persecution.

The Trump administration's proposal for Mexico to hold Central Americans while their asylum applications are decided, which could take years, would be a humanitarian and security disaster. Mexican border towns do not have the capacity to offer minimal security or livelihood conditions for the Central Americans. It would expose them to predation by organized crime groups, creating grave security risks that could impact the entire border region.

Trump's threats to "shut down" the border until Mexico gives in to his demands are most likely bluster. As the Washington Office on Latin America notes, cross-border trade between the U.S. and Mexico totaled $1.7 billion per day last year. Stopping that flow, even for just a few days, would reverberate throughout the national economy. 

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In the short term, the only solution is to allow the Central American migrants to pass through the border to petition for asylum. Asylum is a narrow window, and most will not receive it in the end. Yet, they have the legal right to apply.

Despite the administration's scare tactics, this is not a border "invasion" or "crisis." It's how our laws are supposed to function. Any concerns about criminals who might be traveling with the caravan can be addressed by the screening procedures already in place.

In the longer term, we need to have a deeper national conversation about our border policies. If the caravans teach us anything, it's that ratcheting up punishment against migrants, as a form of deterrence, is not only morally repugnant — it doesn't work. Central Americans are coming to the U.S. not only because they are fleeing toxic conditions in their home countries. They are coming because U.S. employers are hiring them and because they have families and communities here. Eventually, our immigration policies will have to come to grips with that reality.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of "The Guatemala Reader" and 'Guatemala: The Question of Genocide."