Who said children who cross the U.S. border from the south should be deported as quickly as possible? Who said, “We have to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay”?
Easy to assume it was President Donald Trump or a member of his administration, who believe how the U.S. treats families in immigration custody can deter economic migrants with no unintended consequences. The same is true for Trump’s threat to seal the border with Mexico: It is not clear whom he is threatening. It would deter migrants and disable North American auto manufacturing.
But those first statements were from Hillary Clinton in 2014. It was where President Obama had stood, too. Prior administrations had voluntarily returned unauthorized border crossers; under Obama, they were formally removed, and noncitizens with criminal records also were targeted for removal. What has changed is that a Republican president flanked them on the right on immigration.
Last fall, we debated whether there even was an immigration crisis at the southern border. Did we really need soldiers to stop caravans? Then we argued about whether the situation justified Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, especially since it was ongoing. There was a lot of talk of crying wolf.
Now we have a crisis and an emergency there – it is for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers – and because it has no quick fix, it is straining our resources, and further distorting our politics if that were possible.
Since the late 19th century, there have been more people waiting to get into the U.S. than it could or would take, including waves of migrants fleeing harsh conditions. They have been refugees, victims of persecution and economic migrants. Many got in. Some did not.
What is happening now at the southern border appears to be a wave of mostly economic migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, although it is hard to say, in part because there are so many that Customs and Border Protection can barely process them. CBP projects it will apprehend as many as half a million in the next three months alone.
In 2016, the U.S. had 73,081 asylum cases from all countries of origin, of which 28 percent were granted, typically to individuals who could convince an immigration judge they faced persecution at home based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion “or particular social group.”
Those coming to the border from Central America now would likely have even lower rates of asylum acceptance, which would put several hundred thousand tired, hungry, sick and poor people in CBP’s custody.
It has no place to house them, and cannot turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement because, CBP says, ICE cannot take them, either; no room at the fenced inn. So CBP is releasing them, dropping hundreds off in front of bus stations in El Paso, Harlingen and San Antonio, Texas. From there, local charities take over, but they, too, soon will be overwhelmed. And it is hard to see how these releases will not be a pull for more migrants.
It is a situation that requires urgent action. Democratic presidential contenders blame it on Trump, yet none has offered a solution because there does not seem to be one that is expedient and humane.
U.S. programs that seek to build civil society in Central America will not address this in the short term any more than cutting that funding or building a wall will. In the long term, no one can doubt that Congress needs to adopt a revision of immigration laws, but no one sane can see consensus on the horizon. And somewhere on the U.S. border as you read this, a young Honduran is peering down a street and shushing her child, trying to determine what comes next.