When a problem is misdiagnosed, it is no surprise that it gets worse. The current “crisis at the border” is real, but one that results from flawed policy analysis and inappropriate policy responses. Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson recently stated that the Trump administration strategy at the border is not working because it does not address the underlying factors.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials overseeing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) project that they will have over 100,000 migrants in their custody for the month of March, the highest monthly total since 2008. As many border security experts have noted, these numbers are not unprecedented. Border apprehensions of all irregular migrants (including asylum seekers) remain lower than the peak of 1.6 million in fiscal year 2000.
The policy crisis we face is not one of the volume of migrants but the demographic mix of the migrants and the factors that are propelling their flight to the United States. Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy and former senior official in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the George W. Bush administration, makes a compelling case that the current apprehension statistics are not comparable to those of the past: “In the past, nearly everyone entering the United States unlawfully attempted to evade authorities, whereas today’s border crossers are mostly turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and seeking asylum.”
Making matters worse, DHS uses dated policy tools that were crafted in response to young men attempting to enter the United States to work. At that time, they most often were from Mexico and thus could just be turned around at the border because they came from a contiguous country.
Today, the migrants are families with children from the northern triangle countries. Rather than being pulled by the dream of better jobs, these families are being pushed by the breakdown of civil society in their home countries. As the Pew Research Center reports, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people) in 2016, followed by Honduras (at a rate of 56.5). Guatemala was 10th (at 27.3). Many of them have compelling stories that likely meet the “credible fear” threshold in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
It is becoming clear that the harsh, capricious policies of the Trump administration are exacerbating the influx of asylum seekers from Central America. The Migration Policy Institute’s Doris Meissner, who served as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, explains: “Because people are uncertain about what’s going to happen. They see the policies changing every several months. They hear from the smugglers that help them, and from the communities in the United States that they know about, that the circumstances are continually hardening. And so with the push factors that exist in Central America — lots of violence, lots of gang activity — they’re trying to get here as soon as they can.”
[Excerpt of Opinion by Ruth Ellen Wasem, a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin]