Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.



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The day ahead: June 24, 2019

I should be around in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I returned late Saturday night from a very interesting and productive visit to the UK for an off-the-record discussion of “territorial stabilization” in Colombia. This week, I’m focused on the border, and on the issue of coca eradication in Colombia: we expect the U.S. government to release a troubling estimate of the crop’s increase in 2018.

This morning, we’re hosting a Senate briefing with some documentary filmmakers who’ve done good work on the border. They’ll be doing a public event at WOLA Tuesday afternoon. I should be in the office, writing a commentary about coca cultivation, in the afternoon.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Tuesday, June 25

  • 8:30–4:30 at the Wilson Center: Progress at Risk? First Annual Conference on Security, Migration, and Rule of Law in the Northern Triangle of Central America (RSVP required).
  • 3:30–5:00 at WOLA: Risks and Challenges for Asylum Seekers in Mexico (RSVP required).

Wednesday, June 26

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Animal Político (Mexico).

(Even more here)

June 18, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Site assessments have been completed for almost all the ports of entry to determine where such temporary immigration courts, described by sources as “soft-sided,” would be needed


La disidencia de Gentil Duarte, que es la más grande del país, se está consolidando en Putumayo, está dando los primeros pasos para entrar a Cauca y por medio de su aliado Iván Mordisco llegó hasta Nariño

La Jurisdicción Especial de Paz y la Comisión de la Verdad reciben este martes, 18 de junio, cinco informes sobre violencia contra mujeres indígenas, afrodescendientes, exiliadas y defensoras de derechos humanos que recogen más de 900 testimonios

Según reveló Botero, la aspersión se retomaría en julio


Ecuador signed the new agreement with the U.S. last year, but it was detailed only at a little-noticed news conference in April

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

The State Department said that after a review of more than $615 million in assistance that President Donald Trump ordered in March to be cut entirely, it would go ahead with $432 million


Luis Enrique Mendoza, on the run since 2011, faces charges for his alleged role in 1982 massacre of Maya Ixil people

No hay mucho qué celebrar para la alianza conocida como el Pacto de Corruptos en el Congreso. Y hubo un voto de protesta que no puede ser ignorado

El resultado probablemente condena a muerte a la Comisión Contra la Impunidad, pieza clave de la lucha contra la corrupción en los últimos diez años


Había casos, dijo, de organizaciones no gubernamentales dedicada a apoyos a migrantes a quienes se le entregaban los recursos y el dinero nunca llegó a los migrantes

En una de las salidas de Huixtla, Chiapas, migrantes centroamericanos se aferran a la posibilidad de abordar el tren, para avanzar en su ruta hacia el norte

Located in the city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala, it’s a secretive place off-limits to public scrutiny where cellphones are confiscated and journalists aren’t allowed inside

U.S. authorities detained more than 85,000 “family unit” members at the border in May, an average of nearly 2,800 per day. That number has declined about 13 percent since the beginning of June

Shelters in Mexico are already overcrowded, and resources are thin in border communities such as Tijuana

More than 200 migrants were sent back to Juarez on Thursday, double the previous day, and officials expect as many as 500 migrants each day will be returned from El Paso to Juarez in coming weeks

The Mexican official, who briefed reporters in Washington, said U.S. Border Patrol arrested 2,600 people per day after the agreement was struck on June 7. That would be a steep drop from the daily average of 4,300 border arrests in May

The day ahead: June 18, 2019

I’m around from late morning to late afternoon. Then I’m gone for the rest of the week. (How to contact me)

I go to the airport late afternoon—I’ll be in the UK for a Wilton Park conference on “stabilization” (getting government and services into territory) in Colombia. I’ll be away for the rest of the week.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Rebecca Blackwell—AP photo at Time. Caption: “Soldiers forming part of Mexico’s National Guard board a truck to patrol back roads used to circumvent a migration checkpoint, in Comitan, Chiapas state, Mexico, Saturday, June 15, 2019.”

(Even more here)

June 17, 2019


“When you see social leaders threatened, when you hear women threatened with rape if they don’t shut up, when you see journalists attacked for not toeing the government line, it’s heartbreaking”

Para mantener el beneficio de la libertad debían presentarse a la JEP y, a través de la Sala de Definición de Situaciones Jurídicas, concretar el régimen de condicionalidad mediante el cual se comprometen a garantizar la verdad, la reparación y la no repeticiónEllos obtuvieron su libertad o pasaron de una cárcel a una sede militar, y aún no responden

La recolección de firmas para el referendo que pretende hacer dos reformas constitucionales –una jurídica, en la que eliminaría la JEP, y una política, que transformaría el Congreso– ya inició

El Consejo de Estado tomó esta decisión luego de advertir que el exjefe de las Farc no se posesionó en el Congreso y la única excusa posible para su ausencia, que haya sido por “fuerza mayor”, no pudo comprobarse

El expresidente Álvaro Uribe anunció formalmente su intención de promover una modificación constitucional que revoque los poderes actuales -cortes y legislativo- y que cambie el componente de justicia (JEP)


With votes tallied from just over a third of polling centers, Sandra Torres had captured 24% of Sunday’s vote, followed by four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei with 15%

Si una persona con poco conocimiento de América Latina quisiera enterarse de los males típicos de las elecciones presidenciales de la región, no tendría que ir más lejos que a Guatemala

The campesino leader is running for president in a country whose indigenous majority is chronically overlooked – and she has a chance of making the runoff


The Associated Press saw nearly 10 armed soldiers at a checkpoint near Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, in Chiapas state, wearing black armbands to indicate they are part of the National Guard

Mr Martínez’s brother is holed up in a hotel near Veracruz in south-eastern Mexico, with a party of three adults and three children, after being tipped off about a huge roadblock ahead. “When it’s that big, you can’t buy them off,” the coyote said

Peru, Venezuela

A record 4,700 asylum claims were filed in Peru on Friday, part of more than 8,000 Venezuelans who entered the country that day

The day ahead: June 17, 2019

I’m around in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m off to the UK tomorrow afternoon for a Colombia conference, so today will be my only full day in Washington this week. After the weekly morning staff meeting, I’ll be at my desk taking care of a list of smaller tasks that must get done before I go. The only other thing on my schedule is a late afternoon call with some documentary filmmakers who’ve done work on the border.

Latin America-related events in Washington this week

Tuesday, June 18

  • 1:00–3:00 at WOLA: Cuban Women’s Voices in a Changing Economy and Society (RSVP required).

Wednesday, June 19

Thursday, June 20

Video of my long talk, in Mexico, about “militaries as police”

Many thanks to Mexico’s Universidad Iberoamericana, who along with several other groups organized a May 21-22 conference in Mexico City on the need for civilians to be in charge of security, at a time when it is militarizing throughout Latin America.

They asked me to give a talk about citizen security and the military’s involvement, region-wide. And they gave me 45 minutes to do it. And then they produced this high-quality video, showing all 77 of my slides and sign language for the hearing-impaired. Very impressive.

I think I did a decent job here. The video is in Spanish, with optional closed-caption subtitles (again, very impressive).

My notes from Monday’s talk at the Kroc Institute’s Colombia peace conference

I enjoyed participating in a June 10 panel discussion at a seminar in Washington, “The Colombian peace process after two years,” hosted by Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Affairs. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord gives this Institute, which maintains a database of worldwide peace processes, a formal role in monitoring the accord’s implementation.

I chose to talk about the challenge of getting government into vast rural areas that used to have a heavy guerrilla presence, before the FARC demobilized. Here’s what the notes on my index cards said:

I. I’d like to focus on Chapter 1 of the accord. (Comprehensive Rural Reform)

A. It’s where the Colombian government’s executive branch has the most to do.

B. It is a part of the accord that should be less controversial, because it appeals both to peace advocates and counter-insurgency advocates

1. It provides a blueprint for getting the state into vast areas of the country that need a state presence

2. A part of the accord that shouldn’t be thought of as a concession to the FARC. The end of FARC presence in these zones was supposed to provide an opportunity to enter these zones without having to shoot one’s way in.

a. As new armed groups fill the vacuum, that security obstacle is growing

b. But except for a few really troubled zones, the window is still open. For now.

C. Implement this well, and much else should fall into place

1. Coca doesn’t get grown in areas with a robust state presence

2. Reintegration of excombatants: land and productive projects

3. Predictability, rules, someone to settle disputes

II. The commitments made in Chapter 1 are ambitious

A. List a few

1. Land Fund

2. “Massive formalization” of landholdings.

3. A National Cadaster System.

4. Establishment of Campesino Reserve Zones for small landholders.

5. Tertiary road building.

6. Irrigation and drainage.

7. Rural electrification and internet connectivity.

8. Rural health care.

9. Rural education.

10. Rural housing.

11. Food security.

12. (Basically, supporting the smallholding agriculture model)

13. Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDET).

B. This is a fine plan. It’s common sense whether you support peace and a small-producer model, or whether you want to “clear hold and build” in order to weaken armed groups. It works well enough for both priorities.

C. The PDETs (Territorially Focused Development Plans) got established

1. 170 municipalities (counties, out of 1,100); 6.7 million people; 94% of coca; homicide rate 12 per 100,000 higher than national average; poverty rate 2.5 times higher than national average

2. Officials visited many thousands of veredas (hamlets), consultative process

3. In March, signed the last of 16 regional plans

4. 15 years of commitments

D. National Development Plan gives PDETs its blessing, though there’s debate over whether they’re resourced enough.

III. However, Chapter 1 faces big challenges. I see 7 big ones.

A. It’s 85% of the cost of the accord (15 years)

1. So something like $3 billion per year. In reality, probably more.

2. At a time when deficits are already high

3. Expensive items: road, cadaster

4. So you’re talking about a moon shot or a Marshall Plan

B. There are locally powerful interests that don’t like it

1. Landowners, political bosses

a. (Local elites are under-studied)

b. They are very influential during national elections, at get-out-the-vote time.

2. People in private sector who favor capital-intensive model in the countryside, don’t want to pay taxes for the campesino economy

C. There are armed actors that will block efforts, in some zones

1. ELN, FARC Dissidents, Gulf Clan, regional groups

D. Success really depends on social leaders doing much of the work, and much of the oversight.

1. Community Action Boards in some places.

2. Ethnic leaders where there are resguardos and community councils.

3. Women’s groups, victims’ groups.

4. Many others.

5. But those leaders are being being terrorized right now.

E. There are other priorities that are big distractions

1. Venezuelan refugees

2. U.S. pressure to take care of coca first

F. It’s something Colombia’s state has failed at before.

1. Or rather than “failed at,” I should say it hasn’t tried it in a long-term, sustained way.

2. Past efforts sort of fade away after a change in government. (Big example National Territorial Consolidation Plan 2006-12)

G. It’s something Colombia’s state isn’t really set up for, for 3 reasons

1. Coordination

a. Military and civilians

i. 20-year-old soldiers and 30-year-old officers are representatives of the state, but they’re not the state. They can’t provide all state services, it’s not what they’re trained for.

ii. Meanwhile civilians go slow, they can’t “surge” into new zones the way the military can.

b. National government and local/departmental governments, which are turning over at the end of the year

c. The Justice System, which hardly appears in the plan (judges and prosecutors)

ZEII (Strategic Comprehensive Intervention Zones – National Security Council – 5 years) in the PDETs

i. Planning says they’re supposed to be articulated when they overlap

ii. But gives sense that there’s not a whole-of-government approach

2. Incentives: what gets you promotions, raises, and medals?

3. Timeframes: must go beyond the gobierno de turno

IV. New National Development Plan calls for a new “road map for intervention” in PDET zones, to deal with coordination/articulation issues.

A. Hope it’s not just another reshuffling of the org chart.

B. The process of drawing up the PDETs has greatly raised expectations in some very volatile territories. Populations are going to want to see results that are tangible for them.

V. There are many in government in Bogotá who want to see this succeed, for the reasons I mentioned. A few of them are here with us today. But they’ve got a lot of obstacles to overcome in order to make good intentions in the capital play out in the countryside, over the long term.

A. They’re going to have to be very creative.

B. And we really really need the United States government to be on board and firmly supportive. No wavering. Let’s not get distracted. This is a huge opportunity and the window is still open.

The day ahead: June 13, 2019

I’m in meetings except for mid-day and late afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m guest-teaching a class at the Foreign Service Institute this morning. Then I have a telephone interview with a reporter, and I’ll be taking part in an NGO meeting with a Colombian government official in the afternoon.

By the time today is over, I’ll have spent 31 hours at meetings and events in the first four days of this week. This is nice—I’ve caught up with a lot of people I haven’t seen in a while. However, I’m falling behind on the kind of work that requires me to sit at a computer, including the maintenance of this site.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

June 7, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

Three individuals, one armed and aiming a firearm at U.S. service members in Yuma, Arizona were apprehended late last month


Expuso videos, testimonios y documentos que apuntan a que los entrenamientos militares se basan en la humillación, tortura y maltrato de los oficiales en curso, lo cual, en su concepto, contribuye a que estén dispuestos a matar sin contemplación

Lo que piensan algunos defensores del acuerdo de paz con las Farc es que hay un “desconcierto generalizado” en la comunidad internacional por la postura del gobierno de Iván Duque sobre la implementación de lo pactado en La Habana

El mandatario finalmente promulgó en silencio y a regañadientes la norma que trató de modificar con las fracasadas objeciones

Huyen de combates entre el Eln y las disidencias de las Farc, lo que abriría una nueva confrontación en el sur del departamento

Los habitantes de esa región todavía no han superado las secuelas del conflicto armado que padecieron hace un par de décadas y están sufriendo una nueva ola de violencia que ha producido más desplazamientos forzados


The biggest losers are the small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists who have been agents of change on the island

El Salvador

Mr Bukele’s order to take down Monterrosa’s name—which he announced on Twitter—signals an attempt to break with those parties’ legacies


American carbon emissions are partly responsible for wretchedness in Guatemala that drives emigration, yet when those desperate Guatemalans arrive at the U.S. border they are treated as invaders

When asked about the Gonzalez letter indicating it was the Morales administration that requested troops, Morales scoffed, said journalists should ask the letter’s author and promptly left


Las principales ciudades de Honduras amanecieron este jueves llenas de elementos de la seguridad del Estado en momentos en que este país centroamericano se debate en una crisis política-social


Any migrants who made it to the U.S. border generally would be deported to the appropriate third country. And any migrants who express a fear of death or torture in their home country would be subjected to a tougher screening standard

Mujica y Sánchez están acusados de tráfico de personas y han sido vinculados a las caravanas; un fenómeno que, en la práctica, permite a los migrantes atravesar México sin recurrir a un coyote

Nothing would be a more indefensible concession than granting a potential request for Mexico to become a “safe third country” for Central American immigrants. McAleenan is mistaken: Mexico is not a safe country for refugees

Guatemalans looking for refuge would have to apply for asylum in Mexico rather than the United States. And those fleeing El Salvador and Honduras would have to seek asylum in Guatemala rather than continuing on to Mexico or the United States


Though offering sanctions relief to individuals emerges as a dominant tool of the U.S. government strategy in Venezuela, it remains to be seen how effective such offers can be at lowering exit costs

The day ahead: June 7, 2019

I’m in the office in the morning, writing at home in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m deep into working on a report about the border. Available, though replies may be delayed.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Marco Ugarte/Associated Press photo at The Washington Post. Caption: “Mexican authorities stop a migrant caravan that had earlier crossed the Mexico – Guatemala border, near Metapa, Chiapas state, Mexico, Wednesday, June 5, 2019.”

(Even more here)

June 6, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

A disgraceful misuse of taxpayer $$,” Durbin said on Twitter. “Our military has more important work to do than making Trump’s wall beautiful”

“At the end of the day, as a medical provider, as a physician, we take an oath to first do no harm. And taking somebody’s medications seems like it’s causing harm”

It was by far the largest one-month arrest total since President Trump took office, and it was the highest monthly figure in 13 years

There really is something unprecedented — and deadly — happening at the US/Mexico border right now. But the threat is to migrants themselves

Health and Human Services, which is responsible for caring for children under 18 years old until they can be given to an adult relative, stated it has taken about 40,900 children into custody through April 30. That’s a 57% increase from last year

In an email obtained by The Washington Post, U.S. officials say program for sheltering minors who crossed the border is running out of money, must focus on “essential” services


Varios senadores se sorprendieron cuando escucharon al senador Lozada pronunciando palabras de elogio a las Fuerzas Armadas y la Policía

Con una votación de 58 contra 19 se negó la proposición de la oposición de votar por separado el ascenso de este oficial y eso dio vía libre para su promoción a la mayor dignidad de las Fuerzas Militares

The internal report puts the number of combatants belonging to dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) groups at around 2,300, a sharp increase from about 300 at the time of the controversial peace agreement

Entre los agentes acusados figuran Brian Witek, quien dirigió un operativo de “entrampamiento” (incitación al delito, lo que es ilegal en Colombia) contra el exguerrillero de las FARC Jesús Santrich

El resultado es preocupante, a cuatro meses de las elecciones, el pico de violencia, secuestros y asesinatos contra líderes políticos va a alcanzar su punto más alto

Según Barbosa, en lo corrido de este año están verificados 22 asesinatos. claro que la ONU ya ha recibido reportes de 57 posibles casos de líderes y defensores asesinados, que están en proceso de documentación

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

English Map on Guatemala and 4 other countries about Food and Nutrition, Protection and Human Rights, Refugees and Drought; published on 03 Jun 2019 by ECHO

El Salvador

Las probabilidades de que la gestión de Nayib Bukele resulte ser la continuación de la corrupción sistémica, el nepotismo, la preferencia por el autoritarismo y la ineficiencia en las instituciones, son perturbadoramente altas


Plans to renegotiate a regional open-borders agreement, break up migrant caravans and subject families to DNA testing


Juan Orlando Hernández, the US government’s top ally in Central America, is under increasing pressure amid public anger over crumbling public services, dismal approval ratings – and explosive revelations that he was the subject of a US Drug Enforcement Administration trafficking investigation


President López Obrador has few cards to play. But any alternative is preferable to continuing to kowtow to Washington

Unarmed agents wrestled some migrants who resisted to the ground, but the vast majority complied and boarded buses or immigration agency vans

Este fuerte operativo ocurrió en medio de las negociaciones que el gobierno mexicano emprende en Washington con la administración del presidente Donald Trump para evitar que éste imponga aranceles

As in previous crackdowns, migrants will be forced to take longer, more risky routes – such as the Beast – to avoid immigration checkpoints

Both countries early this year set the target, which the people said was as many as 800 detainees per day

Deportations from Mexico have been on the rise in recent months, and the country has launched several new efforts in response to the situation


‘The moment Maduro leaves, everybody’s going to raise their hands and [say], “Take me, I’m the next president of Venezuela,” ’ Pompeo said in an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post

More processing capacity, now, would make a big difference at the border

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.

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