10 ways to resolve the border crisis

There is a growing humanitarian and security challenge at our southern border with Mexico. An unprecedented number of families are risking their safety to reach our country.

The numbers are daunting: since the start of 2019, an increasing number of Central American migrants have arrived. In February alone, more than 76,000 migrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization, double the figure from February 2018.  

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While annual apprehensions are nowhere near the peak of 1.6 million in 2000, the fact that men, women and children are risking their lives and trekking from Central American countries to the U.S. means that we need to re-examine the effectiveness of our current policies.

The good news: we do not have to choose between harsh policies that stop migration and humane policies that encourage it - we can remain a secure and compassionate nation, with enforcement that focuses on actual threats and does not compromise our humanity.

To that end, there are a number of important steps needed to address the rising number of migrants coming to the southern border from Central America. These 10 steps include shorter-term approaches to better manage and process those who are arriving, and longer-term approaches which get at the root causes behind why people are leaving Central America in the first place.

In the short term we should:

1. Use resources effectively and increase resources as necessary to better manage the flow of migrants. We need to add personnel and resources to expand capacity at ports of entry, so that we can handle intake and process asylum claims more expeditiously. This also means we should increase the number of immigrant judge teams and the number of asylum officers. We also must ensure that agencies integral to the processing of certain migrants have adequate authority, capacity, and resources — such as the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

2. Maximize use of alternatives to detention and detain security threats.Children and families should be kept together and released as fast possible on alternatives to detention, such as case management and electronic management, as a substitute to detaining large numbers of families who pose no security threat. 

3. Ensure an orderly release of migrants who are not safety threats. By giving notice of upcoming releases to organizations offering humanitarian assistance to migrants, we can ensure there is an orderly transition. Prior, we need to provide migrants with medical service while in custody.

4. Inform migrants about U.S. asylum and immigration laws. The U.S. government should conduct a public information campaign for migrants in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), in order to dispel misinformation from smugglers and help migrants understand who would — and who would not — be eligible for asylum. In addition, we need to re-establish in-country processing to permit those in danger an option to apply for asylum in their home countries.

5. Partner with Mexico and Northern Triangle countries to counter human smuggling operations and increase intelligence cooperation. 

In the long term we need to:

6. Pass immigration reform to bring our immigration system into the 21st century.An immigration reform package could expand pathways for those who want to enter the U.S. legally to work or reunite with family, while also increasing border security. Prior to such a deal, we could establish temporary work visas for Central Americans as an interim step to broader reform, and create a pathway to citizenship for Temporary Protect Status visa holders.

7. Address the factors that lead Central Americans to leave their home countries. Providing foreign aid to Northern Triangle countries is a must (and the Trump administration recently announced it was withholding remaining aid). We should also offer U.S. advisors who can assist the countries’ judicial and law enforcement institutions with the implementation of reforms that will strengthen those institutions. Finally, Congress ought to pass legislation that funds initiatives to fight corruption and criminal violence in Northern Triangle countries, and funds educational and agricultural programs.  

8. The United Nations General Assembly and UNHCR should address the challenges the Northern Triangle countries face. The U.S. ought to encourage the UN to work with Northern Triangle countries to establish in-country relocation areas/safe zones for those who are internally displaced, while better regulating small arms flows.

9. Help Mexico improve its refugee and asylum systems. By providing aid to Mexico’s law enforcement agencies, we can reduce gang and drug violence — and curtail local cartels that participate in smuggling people from Mexico into the U.S. At the same time, we can do more to support the Mexican government with the development of a more effective asylum system within Mexico. 

10. Increase U.S. refugee admissions from Northern Triangle countries. Finally, we can increase the number of U.S. refugee admissions so that more people arrive safely and legally.

While immigration has served as the predominant wedge issue in American politics in recent years, Democrats and Republicans can take smart, sensible action that addresses the humanitarian and security challenges at the southern border.

Because the alternative — the status quo — is untenable. 

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of the 2017 book “There Goes the Neighborhood.” The National Immigration Forum recently released a working paper with recommendations for addressing the humanitarian and security challenges at the Southern border.