No, Out of Sight Doesn’t Mean Out of Mind This Time

The Trump administration has decided to sweep Central American asylum seekers under the rug—or under Mexico’s rug, to be more precise. According to an agreement announced on June 7, Mexico will bolster its immigration enforcement efforts, particularly along the nation’s southern border with Guatemala, with the aim of preventing Central American asylum seekers from making their way northward through Mexico to the U.S. border. But pushing something out of sight doesn’t mean it has actually been addressed.

The administration used the threat of tariffs on Mexican goods to secure this agreement, which does nothing to address the reasons so many Central Americans are seeking asylum in the United States—and which short circuits the process by which their claims to asylum should be evaluated by U.S. authorities in accordance with U.S. and international law.

Leaving aside the practical issue of whether or not the Mexican government has the law-enforcement resources needed to effectively seal the nation’s southern border, perhaps the most glaring problem with the agreement is that it does nothing to remedy the dire conditions that Central American asylum seekers are fleeing in the first place—particularly gang violence and rampant crime – it just hides it from view.

If the U.S. government wants a long-term solution to this problem, it is going to have so support multilateral initiatives throughout Central America that combat weapons and drug trafficking, as well as human trafficking, and which foster economic development and the rule of law. The United States should also work with the United Nations on durable refugee resettlement policies for the region.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has been running away from this sort of constructive engagement. In fact, at the end of March, the administration announced the end of foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—even though loss of this aid will no doubt cause conditions in all of these countries to deteriorate further.

In trying to get the Mexican government to do its dirty work, the administration is seeking to deny Central American asylum seekers their legal right to request safe haven in the United States. Even if the U.S. government does not actually grant asylum in every case, it has the obligation to fairly evaluate the cases that these asylum seekers are making. To that end, the United States should deal with the issue head-on by taking four concrete steps rather than trying to sweep it under the rug.

First, more asylum officers should be hired and sent to the border to conduct “credible fear interviews” to determine which asylum claims have merit. The recent proposal to have Border Patrol agents conduct these interviews would be a poor substitute since Border Patrol agents are not trained in asylum law or in methods for interviewing people who have suffered trauma. It would also be possible to allow asylum officers to fully adjudicate asylum claims, which would be a much faster process than immigration court hearings.

Secondly, measures should be taken to reduce the massive backlog of cases that currently clogs the immigration court system. This would involve more than just hiring more judges to hear more cases. It would also necessitate restoring to judges the power to continue, administratively close, and terminate cases at their own discretion. The immigration courts should also be given true independence, as opposed to the current state of affairs in which they are overseen by the Attorney General, who also supervises Justice Department lawyers who prosecute immigration cases in federal courts—a clear conflict of interest.

Third, the efficiency of legal proceedings in immigration cases in general would be greatly enhanced by providing migrants with legal representation. Someone represented by a lawyer is less likely to bring a claim that lacks merit and less likely to seek a continuance. Given the complexity of immigration law, it is not surprising that asylum seekers with lawyers are much more likely to win their claims than those without lawyers.

Lastly, the U.S. government should expand alternatives to detention for asylum seekers, which are not only far less costly than detention, but also have a high rate of success at getting migrants to show up to their court proceedings. Moreover, detention of people who are fleeing violence is simply inhumane.

The Trump administration is attempting to sidestep its legal and moral obligations to asylum seekers by strong-arming Mexico into preventing Central Americans from even making it to the U.S. border. This may prove to be an impossible task for the Mexican government, but—regardless—the Trump approach fails to get at the root of the problem and offers no real solutions, just a game of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand, but one with peoples’ lives on the line.

by Benjamin Johnson