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Banning Family Separation Won’t End the Border Crisis

Even the Trump administration is now backing away from the immoral and unsustainable policy of separating the families of migrants when prosecuting the parents for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. That’s welcome, but the current proposals—whether banning family separations or expediting the legal processing of apprehended migrants—fail to address the source of the crisis. For years now, border enforcement and security policy have been upended by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly Central American, who arrive each year at our southwest border.

This story, which has been unfolding over the past decade, exploded into view during the Obama administration when tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children began to present themselves to Border Patrol agents. This caused a crisis in 2014, with an uproar over images in the news media of crowded Border Patrol stations, children in space blankets and frustration at government agencies that seemed to be incapable of responding adequately.

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We both worked in Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration, and one of us coordinated policy on unaccompanied children at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2016. We understand the challenges these types of migrants raise. The surge in asylum seekers at the southwest border has created a situation that is dangerous and inconsistent for migrants and extremely difficult for the government.

The debate over how to respond has been dominated by the extremes. At one extreme are those who want migrants to be punished, ignore our obligations to asylum seekers, and see the migrants as a threat. At the other extreme are many who want anyone who arrives at the southwest border to be able to enter the United States and stay unless they subsequently commit a crime.

Neither of these approaches is appropriate or consistent with our legal and humanitarian obligations. We should face reality: A large number of Central Americans have legitimate asylum claims and will continue to come to the United States. The U.S. government needs to allow them to do so safely and lawfully, and in a way that does not profoundly disrupt border management and security operations. Specifically, instead of waiting for refugees to show up at the border, the United States should process asylum claims in Central America and then bring people with valid claims directly to the United States.

This reflects a basic fact: The federal government is simply not organized to process large numbers of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexican border. Our border management system is extremely effective at processing legal trade and travel while also intercepting illegal crossings, but its capabilities were designed to identify and prevent the entry of terrorists and other threats.

Aside from providing a rational process, there are sound law enforcement and humanitarian reasons for directing asylum claimants into the process sooner. Refugees who travel through Central America and Mexico are easy targets for criminal predation. Gangs target them for robbery and kidnap, and horrific stories of assault and rape are all too common. Further, asylum claimants often hire human smuggling organizations to help them through Mexico and across the U.S.-Mexico border. The thousands of dollars asylum claimants pay smugglers feed the organized crime problem in Mexico. Earlier engagement with asylum claimants can help break the cycle of criminality.

If structured appropriately, a new asylum process could act as a meaningful deterrent for illegal crossing and bogus asylum claims. The United States could require claimants in Central America to make their claims at designated U.S. facilities. A claimant who travels to the U.S. border to make a claim would not be eligible for U.S. asylum, and could claim asylum only in Mexico as the first safe country the claimant encountered. This would provide a major incentive for migrants to use legitimate channels. And families would not need to be separated.

Provisions could also be made for the safety of migrants who have to leave their homes because of imminent threats. Many of the applicants are fleeing real violence, and they deserve to have their claims heard and, if legally and factually supported, granted. The United States could work with Mexico to establish an asylum claim center near Mexico’s southern border. This would provide a safe place for those migrants who are genuinely fleeing violence to present asylum claims to the U.S. or Mexican governments. In addition, the United States could establish an expedited “credible fear” determination process: Those who establish credible fear in their home countries would be sent to the United States to complete the asylum process.

Such a process would require significant resources, of course. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security would have to send additional personnel, obtain additional facilities and, potentially, deploy technology like video-conferencing to facilitate claims. The resources required, however, would almost certainly be much less than those necessary to house tens of thousands of unaccompanied children in the United States and to prosecute many of their parents.

If asylum claims were processed in Central America instead of at the border, it would help ensure that the people who are genuinely most in need of humanitarian protections are able to apply. The people making the journey now are those who are able to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers. People who may be in even more desperate situations and do not have the money to get to the U.S. border remain trapped. And the U.S. personnel who are stationed in the home countries of asylum claimants are the most informed about the relevant conditions and circumstances.

Some may argue that this sort of process would take too long to set up, and the urgency of the situation requires responses that can be put into effect immediately. But the United States is now five years into the Central American crisis, and it is still relying on temporary emergency facilities to house children on the southwest border. There are no “immediate” solutions.

Even so, we can meaningfully reduce the number of people claiming asylum at the U.S. border, while ensuring a real opportunity to seek asylum for those in need. This approach is completely compatible with a belief in the importance of effective enforcement at the border. Tens of thousands of Central Americans are being allowed into the country under the current system. A new approach would not actually increase overall numbers. Instead, we would be processing migrants in a planned, responsible way that is consistent with the United States’ legal and moral obligations to receive and process asylum applicants.

Such a change would, of course, require that policymakers take an honest look at an immigration problem and make responsible decisions. In the current environment, that may be a tall order.

Ben Rohrbaugh was the director for enforcement and border security at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2016. He also served in senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He is a partner in the consulting firm BorderWorks Advisors and an affiliate of the Homeland Security Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

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