Fighting the Wrong War at the U.S. Border
Crawling across the border.
The nature of migration in the Americas is changing. Yet U.S. immigration policy, and its $18-billion-a-year cost, is not.
In 2014, for the first time in history, more non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended as they crossed the U.S. southern border. U.S. authorities were wholly unprepared for last summer's wave of mothers and children who surrendered to authorities after perilous journeys north from Central America. Border Patrol agents trained to capture young men darting through the night aren't up to the demanding job of babysitting toddlers.
What's needed now is an expanded legal system to adjudicate these new migrants' pleas for asylum -- and a wholesale rethinking of how resources are deployed.
The flow of women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has fallen from its peak in 2014. From October 2014 to April, the number of Central American migrants apprehended (the term is used whether or not migrants surrender voluntarily) dropped to 70,448 -- less than half the number from the same period a year earlier.
But this decline owes much to a crackdown -- at the Obama administration's behest -- by Mexican police. In those same seven months, Mexico apprehended more than 92,000 Central American migrants. This undoubtedly saved lives and limbs, as it kept many people from riding atop northbound trains. Due process is another matter. Migrants are generally deported as fast as authorities can confirm their nationalities; only a few hundred are granted asylum.
Meanwhile, back in Central America, life is still dangerous. In January, the White House proposed spending $1 billion on development programs to aid El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- Central America's notorious northern triangle, where corruption and lawlessness are endemic. But the proposal is unlikely to go anywhere, as neither Senate nor House appropriators are inclined to supply the funds.
As long as parents in the northern triangle are desperate to protect their children, though, the dangerous trip north to the U.S. border will remain a rational option. Migrants hope that if they can avoid the Mexican police and survive criminal predators along the way, they can take their chances on getting asylum in the U.S.
Yet many who crossed the border have found themselves in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The U.S. is bound -- by domestic and international law -- to offer protection to migrants who risk persecution in their home countries. But the U.S. immigration legal system is overwhelmed. Thousands of families have been herded into detention centers; as of May, immigration courts had a backlog of 450,000 cases, double the number five years ago, with fewer than 300 judges to hear them. (The Border Patrol, in contrast, has more than 21,000 agents.)
Processing cases can take two years; almost three-quarters of removal hearings for unaccompanied minors that were initiated before October 2014 remained unresolved. Yet last July, when the Obama administration requested $3.7 billion in emergency supplemental funds to help address the crisis, Congress declined.
By now it should be clear that America's immigration-enforcement system, lavishly funded as it is, isn't equipped to respond to desperate children openly walking across the border. To protect human rights and provide refuge to migrants whose lives are endangered -- and, yes, to process the many thousands of necessary removals -- the U.S. needs more judges and courts.
What's happening on the U.S. border has changed. What's happening in Congress, and in the federal budget, needs to as well.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org.