We Need to Offer More Than Asylum

A group of young people from Central America waiting to be processed at a U.S. Border Patrol station in Texas in 2014.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times
A group of young people from Central America waiting to be processed at a U.S. Border Patrol station in Texas in 2014. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Money, love and fear.

Three good reasons to find a new country. In the United States immigration system, to find work, to be with family, to flee danger are mutually exclusive categories.

But all three are intertwined for the Central Americans now on our border, and these migrants are crashing the system. These people have been forced from their homes by bloodshed and lost livelihoods. They seek shelter with relatives.

Where would you go?

As presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump don’t have much in common, but they both failed to manage the migration out of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Both tried to achieve deterrence through enforcement. Both faced political blowback. Both made awkward course corrections, like the Trump administration’s shift last week from zero-tolerance lock ’em up to release them with ankle bracelets. Mr. Obama’s efforts had little lasting impact. Mr. Trump has taken deterrence to a previously unimaginable extreme, committing extortion with child hostages to dissuade asylum seekers.

Whether the goal is to provide humanitarian protection to the deserving or to keep out the unwanted, current policies are failing. Some 50,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle and nearly 40,000 adults with children were apprehended at the border during the 2014 surge. The numbers jumped again in 2015 and 2016, and here we are today, with no end in sight.

A lasting solution must recognize that these surges are not isolated events but rather desperate developments in a decades-long migration. People who make up nearly 10 percent of the populations of those countries are already living here. It is a migration with momentum, and it comes from close by. They can walk to our border.

Enforcement alone won’t stop them, certainly not enforcement consistent with our laws. So the root causes must be addressed. In the meantime, the families will keep coming. As we’re seeing yet again, our asylum system is dysfunctional. What we need is a new visa program designed for the number and characteristics of the people arriving at the American border.

Getting to a solution starts with acknowledging that the absolute best outcome for them — and for us — is for them not to be forced out of their homes in the first place.

Mr. Trump’s 2019 budget seeks $26 billion for immigration enforcement and detention, plus $18 billion more for the border wall. That’s almost the combined gross domestic product of El Salvador and Honduras ($48 billion). A fraction of the enforcement budget well spent on economic development would reduce migration pressure. It would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than trying to intercept people in flight at a militarized border and then criminalizing them.

Aside from the utility, it is the right thing to do. American interventions, political, military and economic, helped create the conditions prompting many migrations, including this one.

Solving this problem, so close to home, is in our national interest. But even if we made an all-out effort to address the ills forcing people to emigrate from the Northern Triangle, we would need to manage the flow for years to come. We do not have the means to do that now.

The first problem is that our criteria for humanitarian admissions were conceived more than 60 years ago and no longer match reality. The original 1951 United Nations convention on refugees envisioned people fleeing “a well-founded fear” of persecution. Easily recognized characteristics like religion, race or political beliefs determined eligibility, and governments were the usual culprits. The Cold War drew stark distinctions between the free and the oppressed.

Today, criminal gangs, armed insurgents and other nonstate actors routinely wreak havoc. Whether their victims get protection depends on individual governments and the policies of the moment.

With the stroke of a pen on June 11, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama-era precedents that had extended protection to some victims of domestic abuse and criminal violence. “The prototypical refugee flees her home country because the government has persecuted her,” Mr. Sessions wrote in a decision now being contested by immigrant and human rights advocates.

Regardless of whether it is legally appropriate, that antique view does not describe contemporary realities. Often, the problem is not an oppressive government at all. Instead, weak governments, some of them democracies, provoke flight by failing to protect their citizens from disasters both natural and man-made.

Uncontrolled violence combines with environmental degradation and economic collapse to produce what Alexander Betts, a professor at Oxford, has termed “survival migration.” The term, he writes, describes “people who have left their country of origin because of an existential threat for which they have no domestic remedy.”

The 1951 standards can be stretched to cover those who flee under such conditions. However, Mr. Sessions and European restrictionists deploy the letter of the law, no matter how outdated, as grounds for rejection. And at the same time, they abrogate the migrants’ right, enshrined in those same international agreements, to seek protection even if it means violating immigration rules.

Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who apply for asylum face a brutally adversarial process that is stacked against them. Denial rates have been running about 80 percent in recent years, according to the TRAC data repository at Syracuse University. Applicants from countries like China, Eritrea and Ethiopia see most of their cases approved. That is a matter of policy, not of law.

The United States has repeatedly taken one-off approaches to humanitarian migrations, raising and lowering the bar according to perceived national interests. Special deals have been cut for Hungarians, Cubans, Soviet Jews, Nicaraguans and many others. Now it is time for a unique solution for the Northern Triangle.

Managing this migration effectively and humanely requires a legislative solution outside the asylum system, a solution that establishes a legal process based on the specific circumstances of this migration. Chief among those circumstances are its size and durability.

More than three million people from these countries now live here, and most have been here for more than 10 years, according to Pew calculations. The annual flow of people from the Northern Triangle, about 115,000 new arrivals in 2014, has been increasing at more than twice the rate of immigration overall, Pew says.

When conditions become life-threatening, migration is salvation at the ready. Although the journey is perilous and expensive, the channels between there and here are accessible and efficient. How else do thousands of children travel 1,500 miles unaccompanied?

Creating an effective legal option for the migrants that the Obama and Trump administrations failed to deter will require adjustments to the immigration system, but no more than special cases in the past did. Instead of treating the Northern Triangle migrants as individual asylum seekers, a new category of admissions would take their mixed motives into account — fear, love and money all bundled together. More migrants will be admitted, but not likely many more than the 300,000-plus now relegated to an ever-growing backlog of asylum cases.

President Trump shows little interest in effective policies, preferring to exploit the crisis for political ends. That means the crisis requires a political response.

Condemning the administration’s excesses is necessary but not sufficient. Trying to improve on the Obama version of deterrence is futile. Congressional Democrats need to propose a long-term legislative solution, making a commitment to address root causes and creating an orderly legal channel for the migration in the meantime. Then, Democrats need to campaign on it, showing the country and the world that Americans can be both humane and practical in welcoming displaced people. So far, they have not.

Roberto Suro is a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California.

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