This year, the number of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. southern border surged, reaching a record high for a single month in May of more than 144,000, nearly triple the number in May a year earlier. Border Patrol stations and migrant shelters were overwhelmed.

Most of these border crossers are families and unaccompanied minors from the troubled Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many are seeking asylum to escape uncontrolled criminal violence in their homelands.

In a bid to stem the flow of migrants seeking asylum, the Trump administration initiated a policy that forces them to wait in Mexico while their claims are being heard in United States immigration courts — which could take months or even years. To date about 50,000 asylum seekers have been turned back to wait, with little or no assistance, in some of the most crime-ridden cities in Mexico. Carnegie Corporation of New York convened three immigration experts in September to discuss the immigration crisis and what can be done to manage it.

Jeh Johnson served as the U.S. secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017. The spike in immigration from Central America began under his watch.

Andrew Selee is president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, which seeks to improve immigration policies and address complex immigration policy questions. Selee’s research focuses on immigration policies in Latin America and the United States.

Julia Preston, a journalist who spent a decade as the national immigration correspondent for the New York Times and who currently writes for The Marshall Project, moderated the discussion.

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Immigration experts (l–r) Andrew Selee, Julia Preston, and Jeh Johnson recently came together to discuss the situation at the U.S. southern border, exploring the “underlying push factors” that are the main drivers of the crisis. (Photo: Filip Wolak)

JULIA PRESTON: We just had a momentous decision by the Supreme Court. Mr. Secretary, if you could explain?

JEH JOHNSON: Our asylum law basically says anyone found in this country has a right to apply for asylum, unless there’s a U.S. agreement with a third country through which the migrant has passed. Then that country must be the first place where the migrant applies. At the time of this discussion, we understand the U.S. reached some form of that agreement with Mexico and Guatemala.

So the Trump administration says that if you come here from Central America and you haven’t applied for asylum in Mexico, you must go back and apply there, not here. The Supreme Court just essentially agreed, in an interim decision, but it hasn’t been fully heard yet on the merits.

PRESTON: So this crisis started in 2014, no?

JOHNSON: The spike in numbers of migrant families from Central America ended in summer 2014 and only began to creep up in 2016. In the presidential election one candidate was very pro-enforcement and the other was essentially saying, “I won’t deport you unless you commit a crime.” That created a rush for the exits from those countries. But the underlying conditions — the poverty and violence and corruption — those were the principal drivers of illegal migration then and now.

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PRESTON: What was happening with Mexican migration?

ANDREW SELEE: Mexican migration has been dropping since 2007. Mexicans make up only 18 to 20 percent of the overall flow, behind Guatemalans and Hondurans, and that’s amazing. This is a large country right next door, still very poor, and yet Mexicans have enough hope in their country that they aren’t crossing in the numbers they used to.

El Salvador numbers also seem to be receding. They were once the biggest flow from Central America and now they are a very, very distant third. It’s primarily Hondurans and Guatemalans now.

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Immigrants from Central America wade across the Rio Grande from Mexico into the U.S. at El Paso, Texas, in early February 2019. They later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Unintended Consequences from Family Separation

PRESTON: How much was this recent surge driven by factors on the ground in the sending country and how much by the breakdown of the U.S. asylum system?

JOHNSON: The short-term surge this summer I believe came from Trump ending the zero-tolerance policy that had led to the family separations. The threat to close the border then caused a rush. And the suspension of aid to Central America gave people a sense it was hopeless to stay.

Also, the coyotes, the smugglers, have learned how to move much larger volumes of people. And in their sales pitch, they always exaggerate what’s happening. In 2014, for example, when we asked people in the holding centers why they came, they’d say, “Well, I heard the Americans are giving out permisos, free passes, if you get here.” That was just false, but the coyotes were telling them that.

PRESTON: Do you think it was a mistake for the Trump administration to end the family separation policy?

JOHNSON: No, not at all. It was an inhumane disaster and I’m glad they ended it. But the coyotes amplify that to say, okay, you’re now free to come to the United States.

SELEE: I agree. They should never have done family separation. But having done a policy that was not sensible to begin with, they created a giant billboard that it had ended, and that became a call to come.

JOHNSON: There’s a question whether the policy now is sustainable over the long term, and whether Mexico has the capability to handle asylum applications at the volume we’re talking about.

PRESTON: Andrew, are they ready?

If Mexico had a more robust system, some people would stay there, to be closer to home where they have connections, they can speak their own language. We could also be talking about in-country processing — countries working together to adjudicate asylum applications in a safe zone, sending people to several other countries. These are complicated and it’s not going to happen in this current environment. But if we were creative, there are ways of being both fair and tough.

— Andrew Selee, President, Migration Policy Institute

SELEE: No, definitely not. Mexico’s asylum system is heavily underfunded and has nowhere near the capacity to handle even the 60,000 to 80,000 applications it was already going to get this year, much less what might happen with this new arrangement.

PRESTON: Do you think this rule will eventually prevail? The asylum statute pretty clearly says that a person who gets into the United States can apply for asylum whether they came legally or not.

JOHNSON: Except if a country of transit has made an agreement to consider that asylum application first. Then the migrant has to apply there first. That could be the litigation battleground. I’ve heard conflicting things.

SELEE: There are ways to fix the asylum system so that you’re not waiting two to three years to get a hearing. Reasonable people could sit down and figure this out. The objective should be to protect people who need protection. We should be giving people asylum and we should be protecting kids in danger of being trafficked. But you also need some limits on who ultimately gets to stay and who has to return home.

JOHNSON: What I constantly said to our enforcement people is that one or two cases where we appear to be acting in a hard-hearted way can undermine our credibility on the rest of the ways we enforce our laws. So let’s be sensitive about how we go about this.

SELEE: If Mexico had a more robust system, some people would stay there, to be closer to home where they have connections, they can speak their own language. We could also be talking about in-country processing — countries working together to adjudicate asylum applications in a safe zone, sending people to several other countries. These are complicated and it’s not going to happen in this current environment. But if we were creative, there are ways of being both fair and tough.

JOHNSON: That was the balance I constantly tried to strike when I managed this mission. But no matter what you do, people on both sides of the debate are going to be angry.

SELEE: Yeah. Another question is what are the grounds of asylum? They’ve narrowed under this administration — gang violence, domestic violence, membership in a family are no longer considered.

The asylum statute pretty clearly says that a person who gets into the United States can apply for asylum whether they came legally or not.

— Julia Preston, Former National Immigration Correspondent, The New York Times

PRESTON: Does Congress need to step in and clarify the terms?

SELEE: Yes. In an ideal world this would be a grand bipartisan bargain. In the real world, it may need a different political environment. When immigration law is decided by the executive unilaterally and doesn’t have support on the other side of the aisle, it will be litigated to death.

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After crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S., asylum seekers walk between a newly built “bollard-style” border fence, on the right, and the older “legacy” fence. They later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Remain-in-Mexico Policy

PRESTON: Let’s talk about the remain-in-Mexico policy where U.S. asylum seekers are sent back to wait for their hearing. Were you surprised that the Mexican government agreed to that?

SELEE: Yes. But look, there’s a history here. The previous Mexican administration was under enormous pressure to sign a safe third-country agreement, and discussions were fairly far along. The new government under Andrés Manuel López Obrador saw the remain-in-Mexico approach as a better alternative.

JOHNSON: I believe López Obrador has made a calculated political judgment to go along to keep Trump off his back. But how sustainable is that? There will be a point when continued cooperation will be seen as an insult to the national honor.

PRESTON: The current situation is 35,000 people who have been returned to Mexico are nominally in asylum proceedings, living without support from either the Mexican or the U.S. government in some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico — Juárez, Laredo, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros.

JOHNSON: It’ll be interesting to see how we manage to move 35,000 people in and out of the United States for their court cases. It’s intended as a deterrent message. The appearance is more important than the logistical reality of how you implement such a thing.

PRESTON: It seems like the entire policy is focused on deterrents.

It has to be at least a 10-year project. There’s no quick fix to poverty, violence and corruption.

— Jeh Johnson, Former Secretary of Homeland Security (2013–17)

JOHNSON: Yes, this administration believes fervently that a deterrent message, or “consequence delivery,” as they refer to it, is the principal way to reduce illegal immigration. We want to make things so terrible for you that you would never think of coming here. But no deterrent message can overcome the desire to flee a burning building. That’s why we have to address the underlying causes.

In Guatemala and Honduras, the two big flows, we’ve seen some real backsliding in governance. Drug trafficking and gang violence and now political violence have increased noticeably. In El Salvador or Mexico the political system is often messy but people have hope that maybe the future’s going to be better. Unless people think that, they’re going to be leaving the country.

PRESTON: What can the United States do?

JOHNSON: It has to be at least a 10-year project. There’s no quick fix to poverty, violence and corruption. We started this in 2016 with $750 million, really a drop in the bucket, but the money was helping coffee growers deliver coffee to the market, for example. It was beginning to have an effect. But the administration has turned that money off now — the exact wrong thing to do.

The moral of the story is, there’s no amount of security you can throw on the southern border to end illegal migration. You have to address the push factors, period.

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Conversation recorded at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters in New York City on September 12, 2019. Conversation edited for length and clarity.

A panoramic view taking in a section of the United States–Mexico border wall, between Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Puerto de Anapra, a colonia (suburb) of Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. (Photo: Grandriver via Getty Images)