Incredibly, about 60 percent of migrants being apprehended, or showing up without documents, at the U.S.-Mexico border are now children and families. Most are asking for asylum in the United States. (Mexico, too, has seen a fourteen-fold increase in asylum-seekers since 2014.) That has never happened before.
Take away that population, and the number of undocumented migrants to the United States is as small as it has ever been in my lifetime. (I’m 48.)
So how can we alleviate and manage our hemispheric asylum crisis? Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things that the U.S., Mexican, and Central American governments could do.
☐ Reduce the number of Central Americans who want to flee by investing in public security, judicial reform, anti-corruption measures, education, and job creation in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Meanwhile, lean hard on governments and security forces that are tolerating corruption, colluding with criminals, and generally moving away from these goals.
✔︎ Give a legal migratory status in Mexico to people who are threatened in their home countries, and who don’t feel safe in Mexico, so that they may transit to the U.S. border without having to pay smugglers, ride atop cargo trains, or be preyed upon by criminals and corrupt security-force agents.
☐ Once at the border, ensure that ports of entry have enough holding space and trained CBP officers to handle an elevated number of asylum claims, USCIS has the resources to carry out credible fear interviews rapidly, and ICE can process asylum-seekers efficiently.
☐ While they await decisions on their asylum claims, monitor those who pass credible-fear interviews through “alternatives to detention” programs with very high compliance rates, at a tiny fraction of the cost of detention.
☐ Make it possible for most asylum-seekers to get a final decision from a judge in a matter of months—not years—because the U.S. government has hired enough judges to keep up with demand and reduce backlogs. Ensure that asylum-seekers have clear due-process guarantees, including time to prepare their cases and expanded access to counsel, whom more will be able to retain because they don’t have to spend money on smugglers. With this in place, those who do not qualify for asylum would not remain in the United States for years, and because of the quick turnaround, others with weak claims wouldn’t even attempt the journey. Integrate those who do qualify into U.S. communities.
That’s a nice vision, isn’t it? No walls, greatly reduced human suffering, a perceived “threat” reduced to an administrative issue. Realizing this vision would require some big new investments, but they’d almost definitely be smaller than the cost of the Trump administration’s proposals for wall construction, Border Patrol and ICE hiring, expanded detention, military deployments, and long-term stays in Mexico.
I only check the “box” for Mexico above because of the new Mexican government’s handling of the migrant caravan now arriving in the country. The National Migration Institute is channeling arriving Central Americans into a legal process: though it takes a few days, all will be registered and issued humanitarian visas upon entry, allowing them to live and work in Mexico for a year.
That one-year visa doesn’t prevent anyone from buying a bus ticket from Chiapas to the border and seeking asylum in the United States. It is then up to the U.S. government to get better at channeling them to the ports of entry and checking all of the above boxes so that the asylum system can handle the flow quickly and efficiently. (Needless to say, the Trump administration is not aiming to get better at this.)
The new Mexican government has taken an interesting and promising step here. If migrants have a legal document to remain temporarily in Mexico, they can travel safely and move through checkpoints in an orderly way, instead of paying more than US$6,000 to a smuggler.
This isn’t without risk for Mexico. It could end up incentivizing larger numbers of migrants to arrive, obtain a humanitarian status, and use it as a “transit visa” to the United States. (Again, this means the U.S. government will need more resources in place to process these applicants more quickly, which would dissuade people with weak asylum claims from coming.) Mexico is indicating that the new system is just for caravan participants—not, for instance, people from Asia or Africa who might otherwise converge on Mexican soil. But even that standard might create an incentive to organize more caravans.
Dealing with these outcomes, should they materialize, is the next step. But for now, by giving migrants a short-term legal status, the new system that Mexico is rolling out deals a severe blow to the coyotes and criminals who prey on people fleeing Central America.