America needs a surge force to address the immigration crisis

America needs a surge force to address the immigration crisis
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As President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE tweets about sending armed soldiers to the southern border, the Pentagon, in response to requests from the Department of Homeland Security, will send 300 more service members, specifically military lawyers, cooks, and drivers, to augment current military support for the Department of Homeland Security on the border with Mexico.

In fact, while the president has long been talking about this situation in militaristic terms, the department has recently seen this situation more like the interagency response to a major hurricane. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Juan Williams: Trump, his allies and the betrayal of America Trump taps Texas Rep. Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats as top intelligence official MORE had reportedly made this comparison in a Cabinet level conference call just before her resignation. She also sought volunteers for a “surge force” of workers to support Customs and Border Protection with tasks such as transportation and food distribution that apparently will now fall to the military, and she also appointed an “interagency coordinator” much like we have seen after major disasters.


Maybe instead of more military at the border what we really need is an “Immigration Federal Emergency Management Agency.” The rapid arrival of large numbers of families and unaccompanied children from Central America has strained a border management system designed for law enforcement purposes rather than humanitarian ones. These humanitarian gaps in our border system have made it difficult to address tragic incidents like the deaths of children in Customs and Border Protection custody or provide adequate shelter to families.

While Customs and Border Protection is a law enforcement agency, the current crisis has pushed it to provide humanitarian assistance to those it has apprehended at the border. As Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Roy Villareal noted in a press conference, the efforts by his office to process, transport, and serve these populations have since diverted his staffing resources away from their primary enforcement mission of patrolling the border. Examples like these show that Customs and Border Protection needs assistance from humanitarian professionals to serve these populations so its officials can return to law enforcement objectives.

This is where a surge capacity force for immigration comes in. AIn 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed reforms to the law overseeing federal emergency response and created the Surge Capacity Force under the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide an augmented corps of trained volunteers to respond to catastrophic disasters such as hurricanes and floods. When the president declares an emergency, the law allows the agency to call on the resources from across the federal government to support its relief efforts. A significant part of these efforts is providing humanitarian assistance to those affected communities.

Although the migration crisis at the border is not a natural disaster, it requires the same level of humanitarian assistance and coordination of services that a natural disaster might bring. Between Border Patrol setting up medical triage and provision capacities, volunteer organizations providing shelter and care to migrants released from federal custody, and local communities struggling to manage crowds of migrants released at their transportation hubs, the crisis needs a coordinated government effort to support these actors and meet the needs of these populations.

Without a presidential order, there is no requirement that government agencies whose missions do not include border security come to the assistance of the Department of Homeland Security, which may call upon its own internal resources as it can, such as calling on the Coast Guard medical capabilities to assist Customs and Border Protection until it can get a contract in place for medical screenings for all migrants, but other federal resources are available only as other agencies are willing and to support them under their existing legal authorities and appropriations.

That raises additional legal and logistical questions about the creation of such a surge force in these circumstances. For instance, it seems unlikely that a migration crisis could be considered a disaster under the Stafford Act to fund this type of support. Could Congress create a separate but similar legal authority to respond to mass migration events? If so, then Congress would also have to authorize federal agencies and departments to expend their funds in support of these mitigation and relief efforts.

Despite these challenges, it is clear that we need a surge force to address this crisis. We have continued to treat this crisis as a border issue, or an illegal immigration issue, and yet those responses have been wholly ineffective and inadequate. Furthermore, this is not the last migration event we are likely to see, and the need for a rapid response humanitarian capacity at the border is clear. Until we can address the circumstances that lead to major migration events, we need to see this situation for what it is, which is a humanitarian crisis for which the government should have available the same tools it has to handle other similar crises, to ensure that our immigration system can efficiently process people seeking asylum while enforcing our national immigration laws at the border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown is the director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She served in the Department of Homeland Security under both President Bush and President Obama.