More than 400,000 people were apprehended attempting to cross the U.S. border this year, and many of them were people from Central America seeking asylum. The southern border wall that President-elect Donald Trump promised during his run for office will take years to build, and there is an immigration crisis on the border right now.
The new president will need to think creatively, engage private and non-profit think tanks, and empower the people and programs to enforce U.S. law and develop workable strategies that can stem the tide of migrants. And a physical wall isn’t going to cut it.
I have mentioned many times that a physical wall or barrier does little to control illegal immigration because a trespasser to the United States must cross the national boundary to get to a wall in the first place. By law, once someone is on U.S. land, Border Patrol must arrest the trespasser, regardless of which side of the wall they are on. And the people illegally crossing the border today are counting on it.
In 2014, there was a sudden and significant uptick in the arrival of unaccompanied minors, as well as family units, attempting to cross the border. For the first time, the majority of people crossing the southern border were Central American, not Mexican. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are plagued with gang violence and economic hardship, and the people fleeing these conditions yielded an increase in illegal immigration that strained U.S. government capacity to respond.
New detention centers were built, and the Obama Administration attempted to send the message that crossing the U.S. border was not a free ticket to remain in the United States. Those apprehended at the border would be processed through the legal system and deported.
In practice, however, this message and approach has had the effect of encouraging more attempted border crossings. All a trespasser needs to do is set foot on U.S. soil, and they are safely ushered into the U.S. legal system, sometimes for years. Many of the minors and families detained in 2014 cleared the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) preliminary criteria for a full application for asylum, with more than 86 percent of those detained relating a “credible fear” of returning home. By this, tens of thousands of people were permitted to remain in the country while their asylum claims were processed.
This has resulted in a significant backlog in the court system, and because the volume of people exceeded the funds and capacity of U.S. detention capabilities, many people were released and entered “non-detention monitoring,” a cost-saving measure that allowed more than 60,000 people to live in the United States, often with family members, while being monitored. And even this approach has exhausted available resources. In October, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that they are facing a $136 million funding shortfall for detention and non-detention, owing to the increase in arrivals.
With the number of illegal arrivals expected to increase in 2017, the United States needs new solutions, fast. This is not something that can be ignored while a presumably more robust border wall is built. President-elect Trump will need to implement effective ways of addressing the factors contributing to the increase in illegal immigration.
Gang violence, narcotics trafficking and economic instability in Central American countries encourage people to risk a journey to the United States. The 2015 omnibus spending bill provided nearly $1 billion in funding to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for the Obama Administration’s “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.” This plan supposedly focused on stimulating economic growth, encouraging education, going after human trafficking networks and encouraging better governance.
While well-conceived, the plan, as implemented, appears not to be working — or at least, not working fast enough. This program demands an audit to determine how American tax dollars have been spent, the results and whether the plan can be improved or should be scrapped. One question is whether that $1 billion might be better spent expediting asylum claims.
At the same time, it is important to use available technologies to create a “virtual wall.” For example, one existing technology uses a fiber optic cable to sense trespassers and remarkably can distinguish between meandering livestock and illegal border crossers. It has the additional advantage of being able to carry a Wi-Fi signal, which would give communications capacity across the entire southwest border. Currently, there are vast communications deserts where Border Patrol is unable to communicate with law enforcement colleagues and superiors.
Mexico also needs to step up its immigration enforcement at its northern and southern borders. President-elect Trump will need to find effective ways to incentivize Mexico to better guard its borders and prevent the illegal transit of Central Americans towards the United States. Priority needs to be given to forging partnerships between people working on both sides of the border to identify trends and enhance the capacity to stop people before they reach U.S. soil.
These are not simple challenges to address. The new president will need to think creatively, engage private and non-profit think tanks, and empower the people and programs to enforce U.S. law and develop workable strategies that can stem the tide of migrants. And a physical wall isn’t going to cut it.