To solve the US 'crisis at the border,' look to its cause

When a problem is misdiagnosed, it is no surprise that it gets worse. The current “crisis at the border” is real, but one that results from flawed policy analysis and inappropriate policy responses.  

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials overseeing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) project that they will have over 100,000 migrants in their custody for the month of March, the highest monthly total since 2008. CBP reported that over 1,000 migrants reached El Paso on one day alone last week. As many border security experts have noted, these numbers are not unprecedented. Border apprehensions of all irregular migrants (including asylum seekers) remain lower than the peak of 1.6 million in fiscal year 2000.


The policy crisis we face is not one of the volume of migrants but the demographic mix of the migrants and the factors that are propelling their flight to the United States. Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy and former senior official in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the George W. Bush administration, makes a compelling case that the current apprehension statistics are not comparable to those of the past: “In the past, nearly everyone entering the United States unlawfully attempted to evade authorities, whereas today’s border crossers are mostly turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and seeking asylum.”

Making matters worse, DHS uses dated policy tools that were crafted in response to young men attempting to enter the United States to work. The threat of detention was considered a deterrent for economic migrants. At that time, they most often were from Mexico and thus could just be turned around at the border because they came from a contiguous country.

Today, the migrants are families with children from the northern triangle countries. Rather than being pulled by the dream of better jobs, these families are being pushed by the breakdown of civil society in their home countries. As the Pew Research Center reports, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people) in 2016, followed by Honduras (at a rate of 56.5). Guatemala was 10th (at 27.3). Many of them have compelling stories that likely meet the “credible fear” threshold in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

It is abundantly clear that policies aimed at deterring single men are inappropriate and that CBP is unequipped to deal with families seeking asylum. Journalist Dara Lind maintains that these policy inadequacies have contributed to death of multiple children in DHS custody. Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson recently stated that the Trump administration strategy at the border is not working because it does not address the underlying factors.


It is becoming clear that the harsh, capricious policies of the Trump administration are exacerbating the influx of asylum seekers from Central America. The Migration Policy Institute’s Doris Meissner, who served as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, understands these underlying migration patterns and policies. She recently responded to a question posed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep: “If you can explain, how would the administration's actions to try to stop this flow actually make the flow worse?”

Meissner replied: “Because people are uncertain about what’s going to happen. They see the policies changing every several months. They hear from the smugglers that help them, and from the communities in the United States that they know about, that the circumstances are continually hardening. And so with the push factors that exist in Central America — lots of violence, lots of gang activity — they’re trying to get here as soon as they can.”

Fortunately, the United States has an array of policy options that would more effectively respond to the surge of families seeking asylum from Central America than the erratic and ill-conceived policies of the Trump administration.

Aid to Central America to stimulate economic growth, improve security and foster governance is a critical policy response to address the factors propelling migrants. Congress appropriated $627 million for these purposes, but reportedly the distribution of the funds is stalled because President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE wants to cut the aid countries because they failed to stop the flight of their people. This is another misguided policy reaction — if these countries would crack down on people trying to leave, it would escalate people’s panic to flee.

As is often said, the most important step is to beef up the asylum corps in DHS’s Citizenship and Immigration Services and to fully staff the immigration judges in the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. This action would enable expeditious processing of asylum claims in a fair and judicious manner — key to reversing the bottleneck of asylum seekers at the border.

Current law enables asylum seekers arriving without immigration documents to have a credible fear hearing and be released from detention pending their court dates. Those who establish that they have well-founded fear of returning home would be permitted to stay in the United States and those who do not would be deported. If DHS implemented our asylum laws to the fullest effect, it would increase the likelihood that migrants understood our laws.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice 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. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.