I’m rushing these words out because we need to have this conversation now. Just like it says at the top of this site, these are my views, not necessarily the consensus view of WOLA. I base them on 10 years of border policy work. Still, I have blind spots—we all do, this is a very complicated issue—so I’m happy to be corrected.
Many Democrats, including those who support immigration reform, see images like this one and worry. They see themselves losing ground to the Greg Abbotts and Ted Cruzes. Even among Latino constituents who, until recently, voted reliably Democratic.
Why are they losing ground? Because these images look chaotic. They look disorderly.
You may feel empathy for the migrants, but you’re worried about your community too. Since COVID began—even since the 2008 financial crisis began—you’ve seen high-paying jobs disappear, crime rates climb, services cut back. It feels like the wheels are coming off.
You want government to stop the chaos. (Whether the chaos is perceived or real, you want it to stop.) As it spreads through communities, that desire for order is catnip to the Abbotts, Cruzes, and Stephen Millers out there calling for crackdowns on migrants.
But do you know who else wants order? Desperately?
The Haitians in Del Rio right now have circumnavigated the Western Hemisphere for a decade, trying to outrun chaos and severe uncertainty. They want an orderly, predictable, safe place to raise their kids and earn a living.
But when they finally get to the US border, do they find “order?”
No. They see this.
Agents charging at them on horseback. But also, a migration and asylum system so underfunded and rickety—so unable to adjust to what’s now a 7-year trend of asylum-seeking migration—that it’s easily overwhelmed, leaving them under a bridge for days.
So voters, including those who view themselves as welcoming, want order and predictability. Migrants want order and predictability too.
Also, residents of border counties and states—many of them hit hard by COVID and economic blight—don’t want to feel overwhelmed. That’s fine: most migrants have support networks elsewhere in the US, far from border counties and states.
So if everybody except the “deterrence through cruelty” crowd wants an orderly, non-chaotic process, what would that look like?
Obviously, nothing at all like Del Rio.
But what? Here are some ideas. Let’s go south to north.
In the region
First, ours should be a region of countries nobody feels forced to leave. That’s the “root causes” strategy we’re always hearing about. A key “root cause,” though, is so-called “partner” governments or elites that are corrupt and despotic. Help the reformers, not them.
If large numbers of people in a country are fleeing for their lives, don’t make them run the gauntlet of Mexico so they can touch US soil and ask for asylum. Make refugee status more available, in their own countries, to people in grave danger.
On migration routes
If people do have to flee through Central America and Mexico, the trip shouldn’t be terrifying. Some transit visas are OK. Help prosecutors, investigators, and others working to dismantle criminal networks that prey on migrants. And the corrupt government officials who enable them.
Many asylum seekers may be happy to settle in countries along the way, particularly Mexico, if those countries have credible, quick asylum processes and ways to make a living. Help those countries’ refugee agencies, like Mexico’s underfunded COMAR, to be more welcoming.
At ports of entry
Many, though, aim to seek asylum in the United States. That should mean going to a port of entry and asking for protection. What should happen then?
First, there should be no wait. After 7 years of large-scale family and asylum-seeking migration, our land border ports of entry need to adjust. There should be personnel at the port on hand to respond to asylum seekers, who can then be taken to nearby processing facilities.
What are these “nearby processing facilities?” We’re talking about a place where people spend a day or two while personnel take biometric data, look up criminal backgrounds, test for disease, start asylum paperwork, etc.
Those personnel need not be uniformed, gun-toting Border Patrol agents, who don’t want to do this paperwork anyway. CBP’s Processing Coordinator program is a start.
So to recap: asylum seekers come to a port of entry and are taken to (probably austere, warehouse-sized) facilities where they spend a day or two being processed. They get meals, a chance to take a shower, somewhere to sleep.
They get credible fear interviews, or dates for such interviews, or immigration court hearing dates in the cities where they intend to live with relatives or other support networks. And then, in nearly all cases, they’re released into the US interior.
Alternatives to detention
“The US interior” rarely means border towns, other than a moment at charity-run respite centers. Most migrants have relatives or support networks all over the country. Efficient processing and alternatives to detention means migrants spend very little time in border communities. Locals need not worry about absorbing them.
When released, asylum seekers go into “alternatives to detention” programs that supervise their stay in the United States. Case officers who link them with social services and ensure they attend all their hearings.
Past pilot “alternatives to detention” programs that involve case workers’ regular check-ins, and clear explanations of the process, have managed to get nearly all migrants to show up for their court dates. And they’ve cost a small fraction of what ICE detention costs.
The adjudication of asylum claims, though, shouldn’t take the 3 or 4 years or more that it currently takes in our backlogged immigration court system. If large-scale migration is our new reality, then we’re going to need more asylum officers and judges to reduce wait times.
How long should it take to adjudicate asylum claims? As long as due process allows. This is not my area of expertise, but I imagine it would probably be well under year inside the United States, normally, if our system weren’t so badly backlogged.
Once a migrant gets due process and a decision is handed down, what if they don’t qualify for asylum or other protected status in the United States? This is painful, but even under a pretty generous interpretation of our asylum laws, many would have to leave.
Some who don’t have strong asylum claims may still get to stay, for instance, if our temporary guest worker visa program expanded its country carve-outs to align with reality. (And clearly aligned with fair labor standards to avoid abuse.)
Make the border boring
The goal here is no more chaos, even in our 2014-to-present environment of very high family and asylum-seeking migration. Ideally, this entire process—work with other countries, processing, alternatives to detention, adjudication—would be efficient, data-driven, and… even boring.
There’s really no other choice but to bring order from this chaos. 10 different Latin American countries have seen large-scale out-migration this year. From COVID to climate change, there are many reasons this isn’t going to change soon.
An orderly, “boring” process would mean no more Fox News B-roll, no more squalid camps, and no more anxiety in border communities. It would devastate smugglers. It would cost money, but probably less than hundreds of miles of border wall construction.