A Regional Approach for Central American Asylum Seekers
The U.S. should pursue a policy that strengthens ties with neighbors
As is predictable, President Trump is claiming a major victory in reaching an agreement with Mexico regarding Central American asylum seekers. It is not clear exactly what has been agreed but it does appear that much of what Trump has claimed to have achieved was already in the works. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, Mexico had committed to sending more troops to its southern border several months ago. Furthermore, Mexico resisted U.S. demands to accept a “safe third country” agreement that would permit the U.S. to return asylum seekers who had travelled through Mexico and have them apply for asylum in Mexico. This explains President Lopez Obrador’s rally on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border on Saturday: Mexico had avoided the imposition of crushing U.S. tariffs and had not agreed to a central U.S. demand.
The White House leaked documents to the Washington Post yesterday trying to show that Mexico has in fact agreed to a significant crackdown on its southern border and that Trump remains ready to impose the tariffs, or insist on the safe third country agreement, if the numbers at the U.S. border do not decline significantly.
None of this is to suggest that there isn’t a serious problem in the region and at our southern border. A 2,000-mile journey through Central America and Mexico subjects migrants to danger and exploitation. Nonetheless, record numbers of Central Americans continue to make the trip, producing a huge increase in persons seeking to cross into the United States. The cause of this “surge” is not entirely clear. Surely physical and economic insecurity in the countries of the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — is a major cause. Some asylum seekers may be coming now because they expect even tougher U.S. measures in the future. And smugglers may be selling the message that if an adult comes with a child they won’t be held in detention for long and will have a significant amount of time in the U.S. before their asylum case is heard due to a backlog of several hundred thousand cases awaiting adjudication.
The Trump administration has tried a wide range of policies to deter the arrival of asylum seekers. It has gotten Mexico to agree that some asylum seekers could be returned to Mexico to wait there until their case can be heard. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an opinion significantly narrowing grounds upon which asylum may be granted. The number of detention beds has been increased, and the government has sought to withdraw from an earlier judicially-imposed consent decree that limited its authority to detain children. Most notoriously, more than 2,500 children were separated from parents whom the government criminally prosecuted for unlawful entry.
The courts and public opinion have stopped most of these policies from going into effect. The president will get his money for wall construction — since Congress did not override his veto of Congress’s resolution disapproving of Trump’s emergency declaration — but exactly when and where The Wall will be built is uncertain. In other words, the president has not been able to stem the flow of those seeking asylum in the U.S, hence the new pressure on Mexico to solve the problem for him.
But polices to simply stop the flow are inhumane and not in the long-term interest of the United States. Victory — if a victory it was — gained through the threat of tariffs will do serious damage to relations with our largest trading partner and with its people. And even if Mexico agrees to accept back Central American asylum seekers, the policy faces a serious challenge in U.S. courts. Most troubling, persons prevented from leaving their home states in the Northern Triangle states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will face threats to their personal safety that are well-documented. Quite simply, more women will be brutally abused by their domestic partners; more young men who resist gang recruitment will be killed.
What is needed is a comprehensive approach built on regional cooperation, rather than one imposed by the United States, along with a set of policies that would diminish current incentives to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. The promise of increased development aid to the Northern Triangle countries is a start: creating conditions so that people will not seek to leave is clearly better than demanding that their governments prevent them from leaving.
In the meantime, those with good reason to leave their home countries will now be faced with troops at the southern Mexican border as well as the U.S. border. Recent experience in this country shows that an “enforcement only” approach neither stops the flow nor adequately protects the rights of asylum seekers. For all that Trump has done at the border, the numbers arriving continue to increase.
Two additional elements would be crucial to an effective strategy.
First, working with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the nations of the region should build the capacity to adjudicate asylum cases closer to countries of origin and agree to accept a share of those found to be refugees. The U.S. should be a part of this effort and agree to take a reasonable portion of those in need of protection. Regional processing would mean that those seriously at risk at home would not need to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. to have their cases heard. (According to press reports, some version of a regional plan is Mexico’s position in response to Trump’s demand for a safe third country agreement.)
Second, Congress should consider adopting a special visa program for Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans with U.S. family members or other ties to the U.S. or with special humanitarian needs. The Obama administration had begun a program like this for minors from these countries, but it was shut down by the Trump administration. Creating these visas responds to the fact that a significant number of persons seeking to come to the U.S. are doing so for primarily economic reasons. Being able to apply for visas in their home states would make it less likely that they would join caravans or use smugglers to travel through Mexico.
Congress could add the new visa program as well as authorization for a regional processing plan to the Dreamer legislation that recently passed in the House. The increase in legal admissions would be more than offset by a reduction in the flow of unauthorized arrivals.
The current situation to our south provides a unique opportunity to strengthen ties with neighbors and friends while both pursing national interests and protecting the lives of thousands of persons in danger at home and on the road. Demanding that Mexico, in effect, build a wall on its southern border serves none of these goals.
T. Alexander Aleinikoff, Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School and host of the podcast Tempest Tossed, previously served as United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees.