Poster Child for Broken System

Sunday October 28, 2018

By John Dickson
PITTSFIELD — The migrant caravan wending its way to the United States from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, has its roots in the failure of reform to our immigration policies. Despite two previous attempts during the George W. Bush administration and another during Barack Obama’s tenure in office, our politicians have preferred the path of bloated, fear-mongering rhetoric than one of serious, complicated policy reforms that would address the situation.

Our current president knows that demeaning immigrants helped launched him on the path to the presidency, and he is now reverting to the old tried and true slogans about building a wall, calling in the military, blaming the Democrats and cutting off aid to countries that allow the caravan to pass. While those sound bites seem to be helping his party’s 2018 electoral chances, they are unworkable, perhaps illegal, and, more to the point, they don’t get us any closer to addressing the challenges of large flows of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees coming to the United States.

It would not be too farfetched to say that his deterrent approach to the many facets of immigration have worsened the situation. First, by denigrating other countries and pounding on about “America First” and nationalism, he has undermined other countries’ willingness to cooperate on issues like migration that cross borders and cannot be addressed alone. After all, there are sending countries, transit countries and receiving countries, all of whom need to work together to address the causes that propel people to leave, the dangers of undocumented crossings and orderly transitions to a new home.

Second, his draconian solutions of terminating protected status for thousands of Central Americans in this country and separating children from families is not only inhumane, but they have done little to stem the flows to this country. According to the New York Times, the “total number of families that entered the country in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, exceeded 100,000 for the first time in recent history.” This record comes in the face of other numbers that show a pattern of overall declines in migration and specifically in illegal crossings since the early 2000s.

Building a wall would do absolutely nothing to deter migrants in the caravan since they head right to a legal border entry port on arrival and seek asylum. It would divert resources that could actually make a difference.


In 2014, when there was a previous spike in children arriving from Central America, the Obama administration helped launch the Alliance for Prosperity, a collaborative program with the Central American countries and the InterAmerican Development Bank, to strengthen their criminal justice systems and promote economic opportunities for potential migrants. It’s important to add that those countries have put up most of the funding for this effort; our financial support — at a lower level, but still substantial — gave us a seat at the table to mold the effort.

President Trump has called for drastically reducing aid to that initiative in his own budgets. His response to cut off all aid to those sending countries doesn’t punish only them; it will increase the number of people fleeing to our border.

The response from Democrats so far has been largely silence with the exception of a statement from the Democratic Congressional leadership that the president is distracting voters from the real issue of health care. Their silence so far gives him the opportunity to paint them as the party of open borders and chaos. Most likely, their silence is due to a fear of losing Hispanic and progressive votes if they too address the challenges of caravans of migrants arriving at our border.

As a starter, the Democrats have to admit that there is a problem, a specific one related to asylum requests and a more general one related to treatment of all newcomers to the U.S., immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The most pressing issue is the backlog of adjudicating asylum requests, which has reached a crisis of almost 750,000 cases. However, we have reduced backlogs in the recent past without reducing refugee admissions so that government officials from that area could work on the asylum requests.

A study by the Migration Policy Institute released before this caravan noted the reduction of the backlog of asylum cases from 464,000 in 2003 to 55,000 just three years later and even further to just 6000 in 2010. The Institute offered a series of recommendations that helped reduce that backlog, mostly through streamlining processes in the Homeland Security division responsible for asylum. These are policy wonk solutions, such as moving credible fear cases out of the immigration courts that take years and allow DHS asylum officers the discretion to adjudicate these. Such solutions don’t make for great campaign sound bites, but they have worked in the past when we faced similar backlogs.

On the broader issue of immigration, we need to change the either-or nature of the dialogue: either you are anti-immigrant and racist or you’re for open borders and chaos. We can start with appealing to four characteristics of sound immigration policy: safe, orderly, legal and humane. A system that would incorporate those four basic values would move to a) reduce the dangers of illicit crossings and living in the shadows of our society, b) help integrate all newcomers — immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers — quickly and fully, and c) return to the cooperation needed with sending countries to address the causes people are leaving their homes.

Even though the caravan encompasses a small fraction of the total number of foreigners coming to the U.S., the fact that it has become the poster child for a broken system could help galvanize support to fix it.

John Dickson is a retired U.S. diplomat and member of the Peace Corps Community for Refugees.


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