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April 10, 2019

Real Solutions to the Disorder at the Border

Anti-refugee rhetoric and policies have characterized the Trump presidency. Now, as he transitions to campaign mode ahead of the 2020 election, he’s doubling-down.

Earlier this month, we learned that President Trump had forced out Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for supposed softness on families seeking refuge, had reportedly urged border officials to break the law by blocking entry to all asylum seekers, and was considering reinstating family separation. He also claimed, “Our country is full,” urged Congress to “get rid of” the judges and “the whole asylum system” and called asylum a “scam,” mocking asylum seekers and claiming that lawyers coach violent criminals to game the system.

President Trump wants to create a sense of danger and disorder so that Americans will support his harsh policy agenda. He’s betting that Americans have an appetite for cruelty toward vulnerable people, including children. But he’s wrong about this country and its commitment to saving lives through asylum.  

It is up to Congress then to put forward a common-sense plan to restore order and compassion, countering the president’s destructive proposals with real solutions. This plan must resolve, and in the meantime effectively address, the regional refugee and displacement crisis, while immediately launching orderly and humane systems to manage—rather than mismanage—the arrival of families and children at the U.S. southwest border.     

Last week, five former commanders of U.S. Southern Command, the military authority that orchestrates U.S. military operations in Latin America, stressed that “[i]mproving conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is a critical way to address the root causes of migration and prevent the humanitarian crisis at our border” and called for increased investment in both development and diplomacy in the region. These former military leaders warned that “[c]utting aid to the region will only increase the drivers [that cause people to flee] and will be even more costly to deal with on our border.”

Instead, the United States should expand aid to effective programs that counter violence, strengthen justice systems, spur economic opportunities, and safeguard communities from climate displacement. Along with these targeted aid initiatives, the United States should press the leaders of these three countries to safeguard rights, support anti-corruption efforts, and address abuses by security forces.

Another pillar of the plan should be a major initiative to expand asylum and refugee protection capacity—and quality—in Mexico and other countries in the region. These countries are already hosting growing numbers of Central American refugees. Asylum filings in Mexico, for example, have increased by over 700 percent since 2014, and are expected to continue to rise. The United States should sharply increase support for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s work to expand shelter and other refugee-hosting capacity, better integrate refugees in the region and bolster the capacity, effectiveness and fairness of regional asylum systems. To tackle the violence that makes Mexico so unsafe for many refugees, U.S. diplomacy, law enforcement cooperation, and rule of law assistance should be leveraged to reduce violence against migrants and refugees there. U.S. anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling collaborations with Mexico and other countries must prosecute the perpetrators of these criminal enterprises while also protecting the victims, some of whom will need pathways to asylum in the region or other routes to safety.    

In addition to strongly supporting asylum systems in Mexico and other countries, the United States should also recruit other countries to join in a significant regional resettlement effort to provide alternative routes to protection for refugees who would be at risk in Mexico or other asylum countries in the region, as well as those who have family in resettlement countries. By re-launching the Central American Minors (CAM) program, the United States could bring children who have family in the United States to safety so they do not take dangerous journeys to the United States.    

While these measures should expand protection regionally and sharply reduce numbers fleeing to the U.S. border, the plan must also include a smart, humane response to the current increase in the number of families seeking asylum at the U.S. southwest border. The United States has the capacity to manage asylum arrivals effectively through a genuine humanitarian response that upholds U.S. asylum law and provides order. That means immediately restoring prompt and orderly asylum processing at U.S. ports of entry and ending the “Remain in Mexico” scheme, as well as “metering” cuts to asylum processing at border posts, which are subjecting asylum seekers to danger in Mexico and pushing some to cross the border between ports of entry.

It likewise means launching an actual case management system that supports appearance, rather than capitulating to the president’s cruel and costly demands to jail families seeking refuge even longer. Forcing parents to “choose” between the two evils of detention or separation—both of which harm children, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has explained—is unconscionable. These leading American pediatricians have urged an end to family detention and warned that even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and long term health risks.  

ICE canceled its family case management program in 2017 even though it had achieved 100 per cent appearance for immigration court hearings. DHS should launch—and Congress can require—a comprehensive community-based case management initiative that supports appearance and helps orient families to their legal proceeding and communities. DHS should also stop pushing out false assertions that nearly all families don’t appear for their immigration court hearings. Not only is there extensive evidence that asylum seekers overwhelmingly appear for their hearings, but if DHS were truly concerned about court appearances it would improve its procedures for informing traumatized families who do not speak English about court appearance obligations and launch a case management program. To help manage this humanitarian population, the heroic work of the many faith-based shelters, community groups, legal representation, and other American non-profits orienting and assisting families released from DHS custody should also be supported.

And while President Trump says he wants to “get rid of judges,” Congress should instead insist on timely, fair and effective adjudications. In addition to increasing the numbers of immigration judges, non-profit lawyers, and interpreters, who are essential for understanding what is actually being said in courtrooms, immigration court hearings must be independent of political influence.  Safeguards against politicized court hiring must be immediately restored and Congress should transform the immigration courts into independent courts so political appointees can no longer improperly influence the decisions of judges. Congress should also object to administration policies or proposals that rig the hearing process, such as 20-day rocket-dockets that would prevent asylum seekers from gathering necessary evidence and successfully proving their asylum eligibility.  

Those are some of the most critical steps that should be taken to restore order to the border, uphold American ideals, and resolve the regional displacement crisis. Problem-solvers in Congress—and the presidential race—should champion a vision along these lines.