We need an immigration policy for the 21st century, not the 12th century

We need an immigration policy for the 21st century, not the 12th century
© Getty Images

While members of Congress continue wrangling with the president’s agenda to build a wall, the plight of Central American migrant families continues. And though the negotiations over government funding may have concluded for now, Congress still has an important window of opportunity to act in a humane, sensible, and informed way to address the issues at the U.S. southern border. 

The crisis at the border can be attributed to the cruelty of President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE’s policies and actions. The failure to address the root causes of migration from Central America, the fueling of fear through false narratives about the risks that migrants pose and as I saw recently in Tijuana, intentional measures to prevent asylum-seekers from making their rightful claims for protection can all be linked to this administration's policies.


While the administration instructs individuals to request asylum only at designated “ports of entry,” it has enacted policies that prevent them from doing just that. Showing disdain for international and U.S. law and having no compassion for the safety of people fleeing for their lives, the administration has intensified the de-facto policy of “metering” how many people can enter the U.S. per day to request asylum.

A paltry 40 or so people a day are currently admitted, while the rest are forced to remain in Mexico with limited support or protection; it may be years before they can make their case.

The result is thousands of asylum-seekers waiting in Tijuana, overwhelming shelter and municipal resources. On my recent trip there, I saw shelters at capacity and met with social service organizations stretched to a breaking point, having to provide for both the uptick in migrants from Central America as well as Mexican deportees from the U.S.

“I think everyone is generally overwhelmed,” a local civil society leader told me, a consistent theme I heard from migrants, asylum-seekers, deportees and local partners.

One of the most troubling consequences of this so-called policy is that the backlog is endangering people’s lives and making life worse for vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children and LGBTQ asylum-seekers. Without targeted social support and safe spaces, many are left on their own and worse, in some cases left out on the streets.

We have all bore witness to the tragic consequences of these policies. Shortly before my recent visit to Tijuana, two young Honduran men were murdered there as they waited to apply for asylum in the U.S., and two children died in US custody because they did not receive timely and adequate medical attention.

During this impasse, we must reflect on what we want our country to be. Are we the country that is a beacon of hope for the most vulnerable, committed to good governance and the rule of law? Or a wall-building bully, ready to use vulnerable people and the federal workforce for political stunts to advance a vacuous political agenda?

Rather than waste billions of dollars on a symbolic and unnecessary wall, let’s tackle the reasons why people are fleeing in the first place. The U.S. should guarantee funding to programs in Central America address the root causes of migration by supporting human rights and the rule of law, fighting corruption and increasing access to justice, investing in sustainable development, and addressing sexual and gender-based violence.

Let’s make sensible and humane investments at the border. For a fraction of the cost of current spending (the U.S. spends $23.9 billion between Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the U.S. can expand the capacity at ports of entry and increase processing personnel to promptly review and adjudicate the claims of asylum-seekers.  

And let’s also uphold our longstanding asylum policy, guaranteeing that people fleeing for their lives can apply in the U.S. and not be forced to wait in limbo in Mexico.

It’s not an either/or. We can invest in smart border security while also fulfilling our legal obligations and addressing the real humanitarian needs south of the border.

The migrants and asylum-seekers I met in Tijuana are no different than the generations of immigrants who helped build our country. They arrive with aspirations to build a better life, hope to live in peace and security, have dreams for their children to thrive, and stand ready to contribute to our economy. Rather than erecting walls, we should show compassion and live up to our legacy as a welcoming nation that was built by the hard work of people like them.

Abby Maxman is the president and CEO of Oxfam America, the global organization working to end the injustice of poverty. She has more than 25 years of experience in international humanitarian relief and development and she previously served as deputy secretary general of CARE International.