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What Would It Actually Take to Fix the Asylum System? (Mother Jones)

May 28, 2019

From the article: 

"In April 2018, the Department of Homeland Security began using a new word to describe the situation at the southern border: crisis. The number of parents and children crossing the border to seek protection under US asylum laws was climbing to nearly 10,000 per month, up from barely a thousand at the start of the Trump administration. Trump did everything in his power to stop families from coming. He deployed the military to the border, separated parents from children, turned away asylum-seekers at official border crossings, and then tried to make it illegal to request asylum unless people went to those crossings.

Nothing worked. More than 58,000 parents and children traveling together crossed the border last month, the seventh record-high in eight months. DHS officials have upped their hyperbolic rhetoric, saying that the immigration system is “on fire” and in “meltdown.”

At first, Democrats dismissed Trump’s fearmongering on immigration by pointing out that the total number of people crossing the border was still near historic lows. But as the number of parents and children coming to the border continues to skyrocket and the backlog of asylum-seekers awaiting court hearings swells, it’s becoming clear to people across the political spectrum that doing nothing is not an option. Solutions are needed—the question is what do they look like.

Mother Jones interviewed a half-dozen immigration experts from the left and center to see how they would create a fairer, more efficient, more humanitarian system for handling asylum-seekers. Here’s what they recommend [...]

4. Send foreign aid—but don’t rely on it

Almost everyone in both parties supports sending foreign aid to Central America. Senate Democrats’ border plan, which was first introduced in October, provides $3 billion in aid to address the “root causes” of migration from the Northern Triangle, specifically poverty and violence. The outlier is Trump, who is moving to cut off aid to Central America despite his own acting DHS secretary’s support for that assistance.

But that foreign aid is not likely to be a quick fix. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and researcher Hannah Postel concluded in a 2018 article that the chance of deterring migration through development assistance is 'weak at best.' To greatly impact migration, they found, aid would have to work in “unprecedented ways” over multiple generations. There is some evidence that security assistance for neighborhood-level programs such as community policing can reduce migration, but economic aid could actually have the opposite effect, boosting migration from the poorest areas of the Northern Triangle by giving people the resources needed to reach the border. Clemens considers Trump’s decision to cut off aid 'vacuous and nihilistic,' but he believes foreign aid mostly gets as much attention as it does because it’s a “political winner”not an actual short- or medium-term solution to the migration challenge. 

5. Open up economic visas

People are leaving the Northern Triangle to escape intense gang violence, find jobs, or reunite with relatives—often all three. The problem is that economic and family concerns aren’t valid grounds for asylum, but asylum is essentially the only way for most Central Americans to come to the United States legally. (The State Department rejects nearly all tourist visa applications from low-income Central Americans, worried that they’ll overstay their visas.) But asylum doesn’t have to be the only path into the United States. 

Last year, the Department of Labor approved nearly 400,000 guest workers recruited by US employers to work in agriculture and other seasonal industries. The vast majority of the temporary work visas have gone to Mexicans, many of whom have longstanding relationships with specific employers. The United States could easily require or encourage employers to hire more Central Americans. Clemens calls this the “lowest-hanging fruit” for accommodating people whose countries are passing through the same phase of economic development that caused migrants to come to the United States from everywhere from Sweden to South Korea in previous generations.

Opening up more visas for Central Americans wouldn’t require legislation and could be done 'literally next month,' Clemens says. And given that Trump and his family already employ many of these guest workers, he says, 'they know all about it.'"

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Photo of Michael Clemens
Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow