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I was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras in 1998 when a natural disaster, Hurricane Mitch, ravaged the country and was the impulse for the first modern wave of Honduran migration to the U.S.
Through that historical lens, I’ve watched politicians and pundits bounce around the blame via political debates and social media discussions for what is more recently being called a humanitarian crisis at the southern U.S. border.
The following are obvious, if partial, steps that can improve the current situation.
- Increase significantly the number of asylum officers — physically at the border — in order to make initial determinations on “credible fear of return” to home country because of “persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.” This is defined in U.S. law. To meet the new needs, there must be increased Border Patrol training and provision of the kind of facilities necessary to manage the radical change in those crossing the border from single young men to families with children.
- Increase the number of immigration judges in order to manage the extraordinary backlog of cases — reportedly more than 800,000 — to be decided. This is not something a few hundred judges can handle. With more judges and with priority given to cases involving those who recently crossed into the U.S., the court system can make clear decisions. Only a limited number of those from Central America seeking asylum fulfill the requirements of law. The cell phone and social media information relayed by migrants will serve to discourage those back home from a dangerous trip if it is likely to be futile.
- Increase and further focus the aid to Honduras and the other northern triangle countries, El Salvador and Guatemala, in order to help solve the migration crisis at its sources. After Hurricane Mitch, the Honduran president told U.S. President George H.W. Bush and me that if the many thousands of jobs destroyed by nature could not be restored or replaced, Hondurans would have no option but to become “Feet People” marching to the U.S. in search of a better life. The U.S. and other countries spent many millions of dollars in reconstruction and rehabilitation in Honduras. Jobs in assembly (maquila) industries and in agricultural products for export were created. There was some hope.
The intervening years have not been kind, and gangs and cartels have flourished. But aid programs now in place and even better focused can have significant impact. They can and will help Central Americans find a future there at home if they have the necessary aid.
- Build on the support provided to Mexico in its efforts to manage migrants at its own southern border. Mexico is the key to success in managing the flow of people and improving safety for all. What’s needed? Work visas and development projects in Chiapas and border areas, along with tightening border crossings.
- Use and build on the example, experience and actions of nongovernmental organizations along our border with Mexico. Catholic Charities and others have taken in the migrants and fed, clothed and housed them. Our government can further cooperate with and emulate the efforts of those organizations.
- After the “surge” of families and children in 2014, the government looked further into use of a program that would provide for initial asylum claim determination in the person’s country of origin through applications at the U.S. Embassy.
The program, as law permits, could deter some from impulsively walking off to the U.S. and undertaking a dangerous journey. The process requires good marketing and some positive results. It is no solution, but perhaps offers a partial fix combined with the other measures.
- Oh, in order to work or be implemented, the six points above would need the cooperation of the president with Congress. Then on to bipartisan immigration reform.
It can be done.