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Policy Proposals to Address the Central American Migration Challenge

Immigration, July 2019

Since 2014, the United States has seen a major shift in migrant flows as more families and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. While these migrants’ motivations for traveling to the United States are mixed and include fleeing poverty and seeking to reunite with families already in the country, many are also seeking protection from gang-related threats and violence as well as the public corruption that results in crimes going uninvestigated or punished. In fact, unlike previous generations of migrants—including those from Central America’s Northern Triangle—who tried to enter the United States illegally and evade border authorities, the majority of the arriving families today seek out border agents to turn themselves in and make a claim for asylum, the one legal avenue available to most of them to obtain entry to the United States.

In spite of this drastic change in the demographic, motives, and actions of this migrant flow from previous generations, as the number of family-unit apprehensions increased to historic levels in 2019, the Trump administration continued to rely on the same enforcement-based strategy that his predecessors used to deter past migrants at the border, albeit with more punitive effects in an effort to deter and reduce the influx. However, rather than deterring people from making the trek to the U.S. border, measures such as the zero-tolerance policy that led to the separation of families have failed to meet these goals. In fact, such policies may have spurred additional migration, as smugglers encourage migrants to rush to the border before yet another wave of enforcement measures are implemented, and more and more families and children have arrived at the border, and in larger groups, in the latter half of 2018 and into the summer of 2019.

These policy failures demonstrate that the deterrent-heavy strategies of the past do nothing to improve the U.S. immigration system’s ability to manage extraordinary shifts in migrant flows, nor do they target the conditions that push emigration from Central America. At the border, enforcement-only strategies do not improve the U.S. asylum system’s capacity to process applications, especially for people who arrive between ports of entry and must go through the immigration court system to receive asylum status if they meet a credible fear standard. A system set up as a limited humanitarian exception to the rule of expedited removal for those who arrive between ports of entry or who are ineligible for admission at a port of entry has instead become the norm, overwhelming the ability of the existing border enforcement infrastructure to process these exceptions.

Furthermore, enforcement measures at the U.S.-Mexico border do not address the “push factors” of crime, violence, and poor economic conditions that undermine human security in Central America and are significant factors in prompting emigration from the region. This approach does not help strengthen Mexico’s asylum system, which has become increasingly strained as more people from Central America apply for humanitarian protections in a country that is emerging as both a transit nation and a receiver of migrants. And while enforcement-only strategies make securing the border their primary goals, they do not help the United States and Mexico work together to target and dismantle criminal cartels that operate in the region, which facilitate the movement of migrants and exploit vulnerable populations seeking their services.

“The United States must move beyond an enforcement-only approach
toward a more holistic policy of migration management if it wants to
effectively deal with current and future migration challenges.”

This brief presents proposals for developing an integrated framework to manage the current migrant flows from Central America and to address the weaknesses in the current U.S. approach. In addition to addressing the near-term challenges of housing and processing the migrants requesting humanitarian protection after arriving in Mexico and the United States, these measures also target the longer-term factors that generate emigration from Central America and strengthen the resilience of the U.S. and Mexican asylum and immigration systems for future extraordinary migration events. The United States should not abandon using border enforcement measures, which remain a critical component of maintaining an effectively managed border and are essential to addressing traditional or irregular migration as well as other criminal and security threats attempting to clandestinely cross the border. However, the United States must move beyond an enforcement-only approach toward a more holistic policy of migration management if it wants to effectively deal with current and future migration challenges. These measures represent a good starting point for meeting these goals.

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