Yesenia Martinez, 24, carries her eight-month-old son Daniel as she...

Yesenia Martinez, 24, carries her eight-month-old son Daniel as she looks for a place to cross the U.S. border wall to surrender to border patrol and request asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Credit: AP/Rebecca Blackwell

Recently, the migrant caravan of nearly 7,000 people traveling from South and Central America reached the U.S.-Mexico border. The group, half of whom are girls and women, were met with tear gas and thousands of U.S. military troops as they attempted to cross into America between Tijuana and San Diego.

What drives people to face the danger of walking thousands of miles, taking on the U.S. military, and facing down tear gas to enter America?

While it is true that migrants come for a variety of reasons, it turns out that they are driven by the same ideals the drive most Americans. Family, for example, features prominently in interviews with members of the migrant caravan. Opportunity, often to provide for their families, is a second common appeal.

We should be welcoming these families, not tear gassing them. To do so, however, will require substantive reforms to our immigration policy that haven’t been attempted in decades. It also requires us to not only encourage immigration by productive and valuable individuals but also those in need of the shelter and protection that coming to the U.S. would provide.

And while much of the controversy surrounding the caravan has focused on who is among the group, the only reason the caravan’s demographics should matter is in determining what kinds of asylum and visas to offer them. After all, the fact that men in the caravan will be seeking job opportunities is no reason to prevent them from entering the U.S. In fact, the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University recently released a review of the academic literature that generally finds no negative effects on native workers from influxes of refugees.

Others are walking their families away from danger, yet may still be just as interested in taking advantage of the economic opportunities readily available when entering the U.S. This reveals the problems in matching real-world situations of potential immigrants to the bureaucratic distinctions drawn in Washington. Immigration policy splits immigrants into economic migrants and asylum seekers. As immigration reporter Dara Lind points out, real life “isn’t always so neat.”

Almost everyone who wants to come into the U.S. deserves the opportunity to apply for asylum or work visas, and to make their case to immigration judges. However, this is where the real problem facing migrants comes into focus: Not only are there not enough judges to process those in the caravan, but there are also too few work visas for American businesses and for immigrants who want to apply.

We are currently spending $72 million to send troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, but only about half that much in the entire 2019 fiscal year on immigration judges. As CNBC recently reported, there are only 411 judges on staff to decide on the existing cases. At just fewer than 800,000 cases in total, that’s almost 2,000 cases for each judge. Assuming that number doesn’t grow (which it most assuredly will), immigration judges will need to resolve more than five cases every day for the entire year. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration researchers, immigration judges rule on fewer than 700 cases a year.

Beyond the lack of resources to resolve these cases, there is a shortage of available work visas. Immigrants face long lines and even longer wait times. For example, many of the employment-based green cards are taken up by family members of immigrants already in the country, despite the fact that not all of them work. As immigration expert Alex Nowrasteh has explained, only 44 percent of work visas actually went to workers. The rest went to immigrants’ family members as part of the family reunification focus in U.S. immigration policy.

Keeping families together should remain a priority, but could be accomplished much better through a separate category for family reunification. It could also be done by raising the ceiling on all work visas. This would open up opportunities for migrants to come to the United States without the long lines that the current system creates.

As we’ve outlined, there are a number of promising solutions to the challenges of immigration policy. Many of the migrants at our southern border are seeking safety. Others are seeking opportunity. Regardless, they all deserve to make their case for coming to the United States. Denying them this opportunity simply encourages more people to immigrate illegally. It may seem obvious, but one of the simplest ways to encourage legal immigration is to make it easier.

Josh T. Smith (@SmithTJosh) is a research manager and Christopher Koopman (@CKoopman) is a senior director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.


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