This is a personal view. I’m not an expert on immigration policy or asylum law, nor do I plan to be. But I’ve done lots of work on border security, and this is my strong impression after having lots of conversations, visiting a few processing facilities, and volunteering in a respite center. Am I missing something? Comments are open.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is saying that 4,500 people per day, most of them children and parents, are arriving at the border right now. Most are released shortly afterward, with a date to appear before an asylum officer. 

Before that happens, they spend a few days or more packed into small, austere holding facilities designed for what until recently was the profile of nearly all migrants at the border: single males. A Homeland Security Department Inspector-General alert published May 30 shows horrific photos of adults packed into the small holding facility next to the Paso del Norte bridge in El Paso, the bridge under which CBP held hundreds of Central American families behind a fence for four days in March. (I’ve been to that facility twice, it has less than a dozen holding spaces, each about the size of an above-average office.) The report shows dozens of children and parents continuing to be held outdoors in the Paso del Norte facility’s parking lot.

From the Homeland Security Inspector-General’s May 30 alert.

This is unacceptable and heartbreaking. But it’s not a national-security threat, and it’s fixable. Ultimately, it’s an administrative issue: a big and complex one, but nothing the U.S. government can’t handle. Any short-term solution depends on short-term processing capacity.

I know, that sounds boring and bureaucratic. I know, it involves giving resources to CBP, an agency with big problems. And I now, it’s only a small component of a larger solution that must run from Central American neighborhoods to U.S. immigration courts. (See the five-part proposal that WOLA colleagues and I wrote up in early April.)

But I insist: the most pressing need right now is for more short-term processing capacity. Even countries with the world’s most generous asylum systems need to receive and process people when they arrive asking for protection. During processing, officials determine whether arriving individuals have communicable diseases or otherwise need medical attention. They verify family relationships. They do criminal background checks. For those who express fear of return, they start the asylum paperwork and schedule their first appearance before an asylum officer or a court.

During this time, officials must also give the arrivals access to bathing and clothing, a dignified place to sleep, food, hydration, medicine, and childcare.

CBP’s processing facilities are meant to be temporary way stations where migrants spend two or three days, and they should stay that way. But they are severely inadequate for attending to the new profile of migrant—kids and parents—whose numbers began to increase back in 2012-13. This year so far, 66 percent of apprehended migrants are children and families. We are now in the third, and largest, big wave of children and families fleeing Central America since 2014. This is normal now. Numbers may decline during the hot summer months, but they’ll go up again.

Current facilities include holding cells in Border Patrol stations, a warehouse-sized building in McAllen, Texas (and another to be built soon in El Paso), small numbers of cells at ports of entry, and right now, some temporary structures where migrants are kept in tents. They are staffed almost entirely by CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, and the agencies complain that they’re losing large percentages of staff time to asylum paperwork, changing diapers, feeding people, and similar non-law enforcement tasks.

Amid the current wave, short-term holding and processing capacity is beyond overwhelmed. It’s overcrowded because of the large number of arrivals, and staffing challenges mean processing times are routinely exceeding two or three days.

Here’s what has to happen:

  1. There’s an urgent need for more space to accommodate and process people upon arrival. Every one of CBP’s border sectors needs a large, permanent short-term processing facility. I say “permanent” because large-scale, protection-seeking migration is very likely to continue, in ebbs and flows, in coming years.
  2. The facilities need to be far less austere than what exists today. The warehouse-sized McAllen “central processing facility,” built to deal with the 2014 child migrant wave, became famous during last year’s family separation crisis as the site of the “cages”: the media and visiting members of Congress discovered that children were being kept in chain-link fence enclosures, with mylar blankets to keep warm. The same conditions prevailed during the Obama administration. Less austere conditions cost money, and the 2019 Homeland Security budget appropriation includes some funds for that. Though it’s probably impossible to provide individual quarters to thousands of arriving families per day, the short-term processing experience needs to be more dignified than it has been.
  3. The additional short-term capacity should be linked to ports of entry. The goal should be for CBP to have enough space and personnel to ensure that everyone who presents themselves and requests asylum at official land ports of entry can quickly be taken to a processing center. Right now, claiming a lack of holding space and personnel, CBP is “metering” arrivals at the official border crossings. This has forced nearly 19,000 people onto precarious waitlists in Mexican border towns. It has caused many times more people to jump the fence or cross the Rio Grande to await Border Patrol apprehension, which guarantees them immediate processing even though it’s technically against the law. With sufficient processing capacity, none of this would be necessary: asylum-seekers could present themselves to CBP officers at the ports of entry, express fear of return, and be taken to the nearest processing facility that same day. It would be orderly.
  4. The additional short-term capacity need not be staffed with armed, uniformed CBP and Border Patrol agents. Most tasks in the short-term processing facilities do not require agents’ law-enforcement training and could be contracted out. Many of those contract employees should be civilians experienced in working with children, and with survivors of trauma.
  5. After a maximum of 72 hours in a processing facility, asylum-seekers, including most adults, could be released with a requirement to appear before an immigration judge, as families are now. Assistance could go to non-profit respite centers that place migrants in contact with relatives and arrange transportation to their destination cities.
  6. Complaints about people failing to show up for court dates could be assuaged by expanded family case management programs. These, which have undergone very successful pilot testing, involve frequent check-ins and monitoring with caseworkers who ensure attendance at immigration hearings. They cost a fraction of what detention costs.
  7. Also necessary would be to increase the number of immigration judges beyond the current 400 or so, in order to reduce asylum case backlogs. The goal should be to have the capacity to adjudicate asylum cases within a year or so—not the three or four years, with minimal monitoring, that it’s taking now. The chance of being adjudicated and sent back within a year, with regular check-ins with caseworkers, would likely convince those with less-solid asylum cases not to bother selling their belongings and paying many thousands of dollars to smugglers. (Though this isn’t a short-term response, these expanded immigration courts should also be moved out of the executive branch—they’re part of the Justice Department right now. The American Bar Association has proposed making them independent “Article 1” courts, part of the legislative branch.)

In meetings this year with people on both sides of the issue, I haven’t received much pushback when I bring up the need for more short-term processing capacity. The details probably would complicate things, and this would carry a price tag over $1 billion (though far below what a border wall and expanded detentions would cost). But right now, very little seems to be happening on the “short-term processing” front despite the evident overwhelm.

In early May, the Trump administration sent Congress a request for an additional $4.5 billion to deal with the spike in migrant arrivals. That request included some “poison pills” that would never get through the Democratic-majority House of Representatives, like funding for additional ICE detention, the National Guard deployment at the border, and more money for criminal prosecutions of migrants. It does, however, include $530 million for additional short-term processing capacity. 

The description in the request hints at somewhat better conditions—blankets, showers, meals. But it relies on “tent cities”—it calls them “soft-sided facilities”—rather than a more permanent solution. While it includes money for non-law enforcement personnel to staff the facilities, they would be employees of other federal agencies on temporary duty. While that may be the only way to build capacity right now, this summer, it also tells us that DHS still assumes that the asylum-seeker flow is a temporary problem that might go away. The experience since 2014 indicates otherwise.

While the $530 million plan may cover some temporary processing needs for the next few months, the border needs a short-term processing-space and personnel solution that is more permanent. Congress must ask CBP what it would cost to build permanent short-term processing facilities in each border sector—with enough capacity to make it possible for asylum-seekers just to show up at ports of entry, and be taken there. That cost estimate should include paying non-law enforcement personnel to handle processing and care while the asylum-seekers are in this short-term custody. It should also include the cost of treating arriving people with human dignity during their time in processing. Congress should then fund the amount that CBP comes up with.