Three principles for America's border policies

Three principles for America's border policies
© Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Lost in the contentious political debate about management of America’s Southwest border is a clear understanding about what is required of us, as a nation, when people approach that border.  In response to reports of problems at overwhelmed U.S. border facilities, some have praised the Trump administration’s brutal-yet-effective measures of pushing all migrants back into Mexico.  The Biden administration’s initial attempts to regain control of the situation have focused on protecting growing numbers of youths traveling alone, but acknowledge that more remains to be done and that a package of measures, from aid to Central American countries to cooperation with Mexico, is warranted. 

Mostly ignored by Washington Beltway insiders is the core responsibility that we must act humanely. We should use three principles as a starting point to undergird our border programs:

First, we will honor our commitment to have a functioning and humane asylum system.


Decades ago, our nation pledged to help those seeking asylum because we were ashamed of how we turned our backs on those fleeing fascism and Nazism during World War II. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE’s approach treated defenseless people as criminals even though, under our laws, they have the right to claim asylum. Under no circumstances should innocent people be pushed back across the border unless asylum claims have been rejected after a fair hearing. We need to double down on our promise to help people who are running for their lives. This will require additional investment by the Biden administration at the border and in immigration courts, but it is a necessary investment on the part of a great country, one that is among the world’s wealthiest, if we are to live up to our commitments. 

Second, we will treat any person approaching our border with humanity and dignity, and not mistreat desperate people. 

The reason that the Trump administration was wrong is not just that the migrants and asylum seekers pushed back into Mexico ended up suffering and endangered — or proved their claims by being killed after returning home to Central America. It was also wrong because the U.S. adopted measures that were deliberately designed to humiliate migrants or make them suffer; separating children from parents was the cruelest example of this. These actions were based on the discredited notion that ill treatment would serve as a disincentive to any future attempts to cross the border without papers. Children should not be separated from parents. 

Placing children and families in cages should be a last and temporary resort. Even poor migrants who are destined to be deported should not be held for hours in freezing rooms — as has been the practice for years. Personnel working at the border should be trained not just to recognize and respond to threats, but also to engage in a manner that acknowledges the dignity of all migrants.

Third, we will value the concept of family unity and seek, where possible, to unite children with their parents.  


Never again should we use the threat of family separation as a weapon against poor people. In mid-March, the Biden administration restarted the Obama program to reunite Central American children with a parent who is lawfully present in the United States. I was the Assistant Secretary of State with oversight of the small Central American Minors Program (CAM) when it started in the fall of 2014. While it offered a solution only to a fraction of the youths wanting to reunite with parents in the States, for them it was a lifeline.

At the same time that we improve our border policies, based on the principles above, we can resume and expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to bring some of the most vulnerable people from other crisis zones to a second chance in America, as we have done successfully for more than 3 million refugees since 1980. Like the asylum seekers, refugees have fled their home countries to escape dangers. Unlike the asylum seekers, they tend to live in camps and cities overseas and cannot walk to the United States. 

The United Nations Refugee Agency refers a small number of the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement in the United States. The Trump administration tried to kill this program and the Biden administration has yet to gear up to restore it. Nonetheless, it has proven time and again to reveal the generosity of Americans while also revitalizing our nation, because refugee newcomers offer us so much through hard work, participation in our society and dedication to the future of this country.

Is it practical to rebuild our border, asylum and refugee programs premised on these principles?  Will living up to these principles prove to be too expensive? We must try if we are going to remain true to our national identity, the generous people we claim to be.

A final pledge ought to be that we will educate each other about these humanitarian traditions, the life-or-death rationales for adopting them, and the painful missteps we have made in our history when we’ve ignored our responsibilities to our fellow humans.

Anne C. Richard is the James R. Schlesinger Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. From 2012 to 2017 she served as Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State.