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History Shows the U.S. Doesn’t Do Well at Preparing for Migration Crises

In 2018, the influx of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States led the Trump administration to adopt strict border enforcement measures, like the zero-tolerance policy that resulted in family separations, increased family detentions, and metering at ports of entry to deter these flows. While immigration advocates have criticized these measures for their severity, the United States has a history of adopting stringent border policies such as interdiction and detention to deter large flows of migrants who are fleeing humanitarian or political crises in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States. However, these measures usually fail to meet these goals since they do not impact the root causes of these migrant flows or establish protocols for managing sudden shifts in migration patterns, showing that active management of migrant flows requires strategies that extend beyond border deterrence to handle humanitarian crises.

The weaknesses in the United States’ response to humanitarian migrant crises stems from the creation of its humanitarian system in 1980. In the late 1970s, the arrival of large numbers of Vietnamese refugees to the United States led Congress to pass the Refugee Act of 1980 to create standardized protocols for humanitarian admission. In addition to creating the refugee system that resettles individuals in other global regions seeking humanitarian protection in the United States, the law also established the U.S. asylum system, which allowed individuals who arrived at the United States’ borders or were currently residing in the country to request protection if they had a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country due to personal characteristics like political opinion, race, religion, or membership in a particular social group.

While the law modernized the U.S. humanitarian system, it had two deficiencies. First, it did not anticipate that future waves of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border would overwhelm the new system, leaving the U.S. government without measures to shift resources to manage sudden upsurges in asylum requests. The law also did not have a foreign policy component that targeted the factors that would drive future humanitarian flows such as violence perpetrated by non-state actors like gangs and drug cartels. To be sure, some of these issues in the law stem from the Cold War’s influence over the United States’ engagement in sending regions like Latin America where it balanced competing national security, humanitarian, and economic priorities. Nevertheless, the absence of these two measures meant that the United States would have to revert to border enforcement measures as its principal strategy to manage humanitarian flows.

This issue first emerged in 1979 and 1980 when 25,000 asylum seekers from Cuba and Haiti arrived in Florida during what is known as the Mariel Boatlift, when the Fidel Castro regime’s decision to allow Cubans to leave the country precipitated the exodus of 125,000 individuals from Cuba and another 25,000 Haitians fleeing the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier arrived in South Florida. During the initial stages of the crisis in 1979, the Carter administration granted Haitians humanitarian parole since these individuals did not qualify for asylum. As these flows continued to grow, however, security concerns led the Reagan administration to take an enforcement approach that included measures like interdiction-at-sea,[note]Interdiction-at-sea allowed the Coast Guard to repatriate Haitians who could not prove or did not have a valid claim to asylum.[/note] holding individuals at detention centers, and expedited hearings.[note]The Reagan administration aimed these policies primarily at Haitian asylum seekers since it could not deport Cuban asylees due to the lack of diplomatic relations with Cuba.[/note] Although the number of Haitians arriving to the United States dropped, the Department of Justice requested more detention centers since these flows did not abate completely, demonstrating the limitations of these measures in resolving this crisis in the Caribbean.

Despite these issues, the United States continued using measures that prevented potential asylum seekers from reaching the U.S. border to deter these migrant flows. After the 1991 coup in Haiti displaced 300,000 people, the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations used interdiction of boats leaving Haiti, repatriation of Haitian migrants, and detention of Haitians at the Guantanamo Bay naval base to meet these goals. For instance, the Clinton administration established regional “safe havens” outside the United States that housed Haitians who expressed fear of persecution to prevent their landfall on U.S. soil. In 1998, President Clinton signed the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act that granted Haitian nationals who applied for asylum before December 31, 1995, access to a Green Card, suggesting that the United States’ deterrence-based approach to the crisis was unsustainable over long periods of time.

While these incidents involved major migrations to the United States by sea, the newest humanitarian challenges involve influx of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico land border. In 2014, an increase in the number of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in Central America arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border led the Obama administration to enact several measures to deter the flow of migration. Although these efforts included launching foreign policy measures such as the Central America Regional Security Initiative to address the violence in Central America, they also included family detention facilities and increased aid for border enforcement at the southern Mexico border. However, these measures did not impact these flows, which increased through the remainder of the Obama administration.

This migrant flow has continued to challenge U.S. officials in 2018. After overall apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped to historic low levels in 2017, the steady rise in family unit apprehensions in 2018 led the Trump administration to send the armed forces to the border, separate families at the border, and curtail the ability of unauthorized immigrants to access asylum. Despite the severity of these measures, family unit apprehensions continued to increase through the end of 2018 as more families joined migrant caravans traveling through Mexico from Central America to reach the U.S. border and claim asylum. These outcomes suggest that enforcement-only measures continue to face the same limitations of their predecessors.

As these historic examples show, the United States has not developed adequate methods for managing large humanitarian flows at its maritime and land borders. Rather than taking a proactive approach that anticipates and shifts resources to address sudden shifts in migration flows, the United States has largely relied on reactive border enforcement measures that do not address the driving factors of these crises nor strengthen the U.S. immigration system’s capacity to adjudicate an influx of asylum requests. As a result, Congress should consider making these two policy areas a core component of the nation’s humanitarian system, including hiring more immigration judges, establishing protocols to rapidly shift asylum resources to the U.S. border, and maintaining programs that strengthen human security in countries migrants are fleeing. While these measures will not prevent future crises, they could ensure that the United States can shed the legacy of its past responses to migrant flows and successfully manage future ones.

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