Enforcement alone won’t stop them, certainly not enforcement consistent with our laws. So the root causes must be addressed. In the meantime, the families will keep coming. As we’re seeing yet again, our asylum system is dysfunctional. What we need is a new visa program designed for the number and characteristics of the people arriving at the American border.
Getting to a solution starts with acknowledging that the absolute best outcome for them — and for us — is for them not to be forced out of their homes in the first place.
Mr. Trump’s 2019 budget seeks $26 billion for immigration enforcement and detention, plus $18 billion more for the border wall. That’s almost the combined gross domestic product of El Salvador and Honduras ($48 billion). A fraction of the enforcement budget well spent on economic development would reduce migration pressure. It would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than trying to intercept people in flight at a militarized border and then criminalizing them.
Aside from the utility, it is the right thing to do. American interventions, political, military and economic, helped create the conditions prompting many migrations, including this one.
Solving this problem, so close to home, is in our national interest. But even if we made an all-out effort to address the ills forcing people to emigrate from the Northern Triangle, we would need to manage the flow for years to come. We do not have the means to do that now.
The first problem is that our criteria for humanitarian admissions were conceived more than 60 years ago and no longer match reality. The original 1951 United Nations convention on refugees envisioned people fleeing “a well-founded fear” of persecution. Easily recognized characteristics like religion, race or political beliefs determined eligibility, and governments were the usual culprits. The Cold War drew stark distinctions between the free and the oppressed.
Today, criminal gangs, armed insurgents and other nonstate actors routinely wreak havoc. Whether their victims get protection depends on individual governments and the policies of the moment.
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Uncontrolled violence combines with environmental degradation and economic collapse to produce what Alexander Betts, a professor at Oxford, has termed “survival migration.” The term, he writes, describes “people who have left their country of origin because of an existential threat for which they have no domestic remedy.”
The 1951 standards can be stretched to cover those who flee under such conditions. However, Mr. Sessions and European restrictionists deploy the letter of the law, no matter how outdated, as grounds for rejection. And at the same time, they abrogate the migrants’ right, enshrined in those same international agreements, to seek protection even if it means violating immigration rules.