Central American migrants cross the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez,...

Central American migrants cross the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, State of Chihuahua, Mexico, on June 12, before turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents to seek asylum. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/HERIKA MARTINEZ

As the number of Central Americans trying to cross into the United States at our southern border has exploded over the past year, advocates for and opponents of immigrants here illegally alike have declared a crisis. What they disagree on is what aspect of the situation is the problem, and what needs to be done to fix it.

To President Donald Trump and his followers, the travesty is the simple fact of hundreds of thousands of people trying to come into the United States each month with no authorization. In May, there were 144,278 apprehensions at the southern border, three times as many as last May and seven times as many as in May 2017. More people are trying to cross than at any time since 2007, and the majority are families with children. Something must change.

Over the past few weeks, Trump threatened huge tariffs on Mexican goods if that nation did not stem the flow of immigrants reaching the United States, then relented after Mexico agreed to do more to help. But one reason for the recent increase in the flow of immigrants is Trump’s efforts to close the border, build a wall and change the rules to make it more difficult for immigrants to apply for asylum. For the people enduring gang violence, poverty and corruption in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, there is no greater spur to come to the United States now than the threat that it will be even harder later.

For immigration advocates, the emergency is young children separated from parents who then cannot be located, 24 immigrants dying in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody during the Trump administration, and children in chain link cells. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, “egregious violations” at detention centers included inadequate medical care, rotten food, nooses in detainee cells and other inhumane conditions.

Need for workforce

The suffering is heartbreaking, but deploying the Mexican National Guard to stop the flow is not the answer. The United States must be a safe harbor for deserving asylum-seekers, and other immigrants, not an impregnable barrier against them. Not only does our nation have a responsibility to be open to immigrants, it also has an increasing need for them. Without more immigrants, demographers say America will soon have a workforce decimated by the retirement of the baby boomers and Gen-Xers and bereft of people willing to do the kind of grueling work immigrants accept as a stop on the way to prosperity and stability.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation now has 7.6 million unfilled jobs, a number expected to grow dramatically. We need more immigrants, arriving in an orderly fashion.

We’ll never entirely stop the flow of immigrants crossing into the United States without authorization. Our laws and international law don’t allow the stopping of asylum-seekers. But there are ways to reduce the headlong rush to the border that creates such chaos, and improve the conditions for those who arrive there. House Democrats, who have so consistently decried the president’s plans, need to present a solution.

Changing trajectory

A start would be approving the $4.5 billion requested by Trump, mostly for humanitarian aid, that Democrats are holding up. They’re objecting because $1.2 billion in the request would be set aside for U.S. Border Patrol operations, including increased detention capacity. But these immigrants do need to be housed, and their suffering alleviated.

The United States also needs to increase the number of Central American immigrants allowed to come here legally each year to study, work jobs at all skill levels or join family members, while cracking down on employers who hire those here illegally.

Another obvious step is reversing the increasingly harsh limits on refugee applications. Immigrants seek refugee status if they apply from outside the United States, an orderly process, and asylum status if they apply in the United States, which is chaotic. Trump has dramatically reduced the number of refugees accepted in the United States with the nation on pace to accept 24,000 this year. In 2016, we took in 84,944 refugees. The more refugee applications we refuse, the more we’ll see asylum-seekers fleeing to our borders.

These changes should be paired with a public relations effort in Central America that encourages applying for refugee status from home. To deal with those who still make the trek, a huge increase in staffing is also necessary to do preliminary processing of asylum claims quickly at the border. And more judges are needed to speed up final asylum adjudications that take years.

The United States needs immigrants, and immigrants need the United States. What must be reduced is the mayhem and suffering at the border. That can be done by improving the process of legal immigration and disincentivizing illegal immigration, while treating all people who reach our nation with respect, no matter how they got here.


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