Opinion

The emergency at the border isn’t national. It’s regional

We’re dealing with a regional humanitarian crisis that no wall can solve

Walls won’t cure the political unrest driving Central Americans to seek asylum, Brown and Ramón write. Above, a group of Honduran migrants are briefly detained in December in Tijuana, Mexico, after trying to cross into the United States. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — President Donald Trump has claimed again and again that the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border constitutes a humanitarian and national security crisis that merits construction of a border wall to protect the country and deter people from making the perilous journey north.

He is half right. An honest assessment of what’s driving these people — often families with small children — to come to the United States shows we’re dealing with a regional humanitarian crisis that no wall can solve.

The present situation requires a different solution altogether. To decrease the number of people showing up at the border, the United States must work with its Central American and Mexican partners to target the root causes of migration and improve border infrastructure and asylum processes to boost the capacity of both the U.S. and Mexico to manage these flows.

High levels of violence and economic deterioration in Central America have been largely responsible for creating this crisis. In 2016, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala had the first, second and 10th highest rates of deaths per capita in the world. In 2018, the region’s agricultural industries collapsed as a severe drought killed off major crops, leaving large numbers of people without food and work. And charges of corruption in Guatemala and political unrest following the recent Honduran elections have led to governance crises and undermined the security of their citizens.

These conditions have driven migrant flows to Mexico and the United States.

Mexico, which has long served as a transit zone for migrants from Central America, has become a receiver of Central American migrants seeking protection. In 2013, 1,296 people filed applications for asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection in the country. In 2017, 14,596 people filed these applications, overwhelming the nation’s understaffed asylum agency and straining the resources of border cities like Tijuana and the Mexican government.

Problems without borders

This migrant flow has also challenged the U.S. asylum system. Although overall apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, at the U.S.-Mexico border have remained at historically low levels, families and children from Central America have become a higher percentage. In 2018, 39 percent of the 396,579 apprehensions were families and children. In contrast, less than 10 percent of the 356,873 apprehensions were families and children in 2012.

According to CBP, the majority of these families and children are legally requesting the opportunity to apply for asylum, not trying to immigrate illegally.

The construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border would not address the regional push factors that have led these migrants to seek protection and economic opportunity in the United States. The continued focus on a wall and other efforts to deter would-be asylum-seekers, such as the zero-tolerance policy that separated families, presumes that focusing only on enforcement of immigration law will lead people to remain in their countries and ignores their willingness to take enormous risks to leave behind horrible conditions.

A wall would also fail to prevent immigrants from presenting themselves at ports of entry to seek asylum, a process provided for by the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and international law.

Structural solutions

What would address these issues?

To start, we should fund the expansion of border facilities at ports of entry and between the ports to enable border authorities to adjust to sudden shifts in migrant flows, especially those that include populations with special needs like families and children seeking asylum.

Hiring more immigration judges would trim the backlog of asylum cases and reduce the current two-year waits for court dates. Coordinating regional aid to Central America and enabling multiparty development agreements there could support economic recovery in the region. We should also consider providing aid to support the Mexican government’s capacity to process more requests for asylum.

There is no “quick-fix” solution to a flow of migrants that has been building for more than half a decade. Our nation’s broken and outdated immigration system hasn’t done us any favors by undermining our country’s economic potential and weakening our humanitarian leadership.

But a wall wouldn’t solve any of those chronic ailments, nor the acute problems at the border today. We should propose ways to address the humanitarian emergency facing the U.S. and its regional partners, not just make political points masquerading as solutions to a problem limited to the Southwest border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown is director of immigration and cross-border policy at BPC and served in the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Cristobal Ramón is an immigration policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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