COMMENTARY, Q&A: Migrant Caravan and the US Immigration System

For the second time this year, a caravan of migrants is making its way through Mexico toward the U.S. southern border.

President Donald Trump has said the caravan will not be allowed into the United States, and vowed to send the U.S. military to assist in securing the border if necessary.

Ana Quintana and David Inserra of The Heritage Foundation have been closely following the issue. I sat down with them to get their thoughts.

Timothy Doescher: This caravan seems to be well-organized and well-funded. But many on the left seem to ignore that and say, “This is an organic march of people who are just looking for a better life in America.” What have you observed?

Ana Quintana: I think this is a totally manufactured crisis. Various leftist groups got together and said, “Hey, let’s get all these people together. There’s safety in numbers. Let’s march them up to the United States and let’s see how we can overwhelm U.S. immigration authorities just by their sheer numbers.”

Doescher: So that’s the goal, to overwhelm?

Quintana: That’s exactly it, to overwhelm by their numbers, because that’s exactly what they tried to do earlier this year. Remember, this is the second caravan. There was a caravan earlier this year in March, and it was the same strategy, overwhelm immigration authorities.

Doescher: How are they funded?

Quintana: I’m not convinced that this is a well-funded operation. These people are sleeping on the streets. These people come from desperate situations. They’re living in desperate situations as they’re making their way toward the United States. It’s the organizers of these campaigns that are using their desperations for political objectives, and that’s what we should be angry about.

Doescher: You recently wrote, “The timing before the U.S. midterm elections and the change of presidency in Mexico is not coincidental. It is also clear the caravan organizers are more interested in creating turmoil than the well-being of the migrants, essentially weaponizing poor Central Americans.” Is that a tactic straight out of the left’s playbook?

Quintana: That’s exactly what it is. One of the critical things, aside from the U.S. election, is the change of the presidency in Mexico, because the left in Latin America, particularly in Central America, has complained that the Mexican government has done the United States’ dirty work of deporting Central Americans. To the current Mexican government’s credit, they’ve done a fantastic job of recognizing that Central Americans in their country illegally are violating their sovereignty, and unless they have credible claims of asylum, should go back to their home countries. They’ve maintained great levels of cooperation with the Trump administration. There have been great cooperation programs.

However, the incoming and the newly elected president in Mexico shares a different perspective. He has said that he doesn’t want to do the United States’ dirty work, that he rather wants to focus on development programs in Central America to provide people in Central America with more economic opportunities.

We should focus on providing Central Americans with economic opportunities, but that’s the responsibility largely of Central American governments and should not largely be the responsibility of the United States. But that does not mean that we should allow people to break U.S. law and to break the Mexican government’s law as well.

Doescher: The media narrative now is that Trump is politicizing this issue for midterm elections. What’s your response to this?

Quintana: Honestly, I wish that even 50 percent of the attention and the anger and the vitriol that’s being directed toward the United States was redirected toward these corrupt governments in Central America to get their act together and to provide their people with better opportunities. If that was the case, we would not be in this situation.

Doescher: Trump has talked about mobilizing troops and said cutting foreign aid might be necessary. How do you weigh that response?

Quintana: The president brings up a good question about the efficacy of our foreign assistance. We provide these countries great levels of foreign assistance, whether it’s economic development assistance, assistance to their military, to the security services, and yet still there continues to be security conditions in these countries that drive people to leave. We should weigh how effective this assistance has been.

I don’t believe we should cut assistance because that’s going to exacerbate the conditions, but there is something intelligent in getting these counties a little bit scared and rattle their cages and letting them know that the United States has certain standards and obligations that must be met in order for them to cooperate with the United States. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Doescher: Many of these migrants are coming from Honduras. What’s happening there to cause them to leave?

Quintana: It’s really hard to describe just how sad and just how terrible the security conditions in these countries are. It’s one thing to read about that there are X amount of homicide rates or that there’s X levels of extortions and rapes and things like that. I remember one of the first times I arrived in Honduras, as I was reading the newspaper that morning, I read this horrible story about how a 7-year-old was killed on the way to school because he didn’t have the equivalent of 4 or 5 cents to pay a local gang to cross the street, because that was the tax that the gang would charge just for people to be able to cross that street.

Those are the conditions that people in Honduras have to live in every single day. You have these incredibly powerful and violent street gangs that dominate, that just dominate blocks. You have police officers who are essentially in the pockets of these street gangs because the government doesn’t pay them enough, because the government has not vetted them well enough. There’s just not levels of certainty as to whether they are clean or not.

Doescher: When all is said and done, it’s nearly 2,000 miles from Honduras to whatever border crossing they come to. What happens if they get to the U.S. border?

David Inserra: Right now, the U.S. has a significant problem with the way our laws are enforced. When people get to our border, we have what’s unfortunately been catch-and-release. It doesn’t sound very good. It’s not very good. We are required, because of the combination of U.S. laws and certain court cases, to basically release them into the United States within 20 days.

Doescher: Are we just to assume that they’re going to illegally cross? Or will they get in line and do things legally once they get to the border?

Inserra: We don’t know. Unfortunately, most people try to sneak across the border. Then you have the concept of asylum. How do you seek asylum? That’s what many people here in this caravan are supposedly going to be doing—seeking asylum.

To seek asylum, you can do it two ways. You can either do it affirmatively: You show up at a port of entry and say, “I would like asylum.” And then we have a process for dealing with you because you’ve done it the right way. You’ve done it legally. There’s nothing illegal about that.

Many other people are going to sneak across the border and we’re going to catch them. And then when we’re in the process of deporting them they’ll say, “No, you can’t deport me because I would like to now seek asylum defensively.”

The problem is that you combine that with this policy of catch-and-release, which is required because of certain court cases. If you claim asylum, you have a child with you, the United States can’t adjudicate your asylum case in less than 20 days, which means we have to release the child.

The earlier policy of the Trump administration was “no tolerance,” which meant that we have to release the child, but we’re still going to hold onto the parents because they broke a law. They illegally crossed the border. But then that was dividing parents from children. So now their de facto policy is to release the children so we don’t divide the families. We just release them all and hope they show up in immigration court in a few years.

Doescher: We’re not tracking them? We’re not making sure they don’t meet up with the people that are already here, that give them a house and food and clothing?

Inserra: In some cases, we are. But the reality is that it’s beyond our capacity to effectively manage. Recently we’ve seen reports where Department of Homeland Security officials are saying we have so many people and we have to meet this 20-day deadline that we can’t even figure out their travel arrangements to figure out where they’re going. Their immigration court or their sponsor, or wherever they’re supposed to be going, might be in Connecticut. We don’t even know how they’re getting to Connecticut. Our time is up. We have to release them, so we’re dropping them at the local bus stop. The same Homeland Security official, I think, was quoting as saying, “The dam is broken.”

Doescher: Is a strategy to gum up the courts? To keep overwhelming the system?

Inserra: I wouldn’t say this is a concerted strategy by the average illegal immigrant. The average illegal immigrant is coming here because they want a better life. They heard that the ticket to a better life is: “Come to the U.S. with a child, and then we will release you.” So they’re being told this by other activists or by the drug cartels who are trying to sell them a smuggling operation into the United States.

And the reality is that if they do get to the United States through the drug cartels or through these caravans or however they get here, if they’ve got a child in tow, many of them are being released. So they’re responding to a reality and just trying to take advantage of that.

It’s mostly being done by the smugglers and these far-left activists who are trying to gin this up rather than the illegal immigrant who’s really just looking out for themselves.

Doescher: What is the criteria for claiming asylum?

Inserra: This is the real crux of the issue. And this is the problem that we currently face. In addition to our loopholes, we’ve got an asylum problem that we can’t adjudicate these cases fast enough.

To receive asylum, it’s actually the same definition as someone who’s seeking to become a refugee. You have to be persecuted based on your race, your religion, your political opinion, your membership in a social group. If you don’t meet those criteria, then you don’t get asylum. Being a victim of crime does not mean that you get to get asylum in the U.S.

Similarly, if you are a gay business owner in an area that’s controlled by the mafia or by a local gang, you could, in theory, quality for asylum, but only if they specifically persecuted you because you were gay. Let’s say in that entire area, the mob is just taking money from everyone because that’s what mobs do, then you weren’t persecuted because you were gay. You were coerced, violence was done against you, because that’s what the mob does. And that’s the difference.

It’s not enough for there to be just general violence in a society. It has to be that you were specifically picked on. Violence was done to you, or you were threatened specifically, because of one of these characteristics. And unfortunately, that’s not really the case in most of these asylum cases that we’re seeing.

Doescher: How has the response been from the Trump administration? And what could they do better or what should they keep doing?

Inserra: The administration is in a tough position right now because they are up against these court decisions that basically say, “You have to release these children.” The last time this occurred with the no tolerance policy and the children being separated from their parents caused them to step back from the zero tolerance policy.

The problem is now that there are these loopholes and things are just getting worse every day. The administration is trying its best to basically make things go as quickly as they can. But at the end of the day, the average wait time, I think, of an immigration court hearing right now is like two years. It’s 700-and-some days.

That’s the system we’re operating in. And so the Trump administration, I think you can sense some real anger and angst about how they don’t want the situation to be the way it is. And that’s why I think you hear President Trump talking about these weak immigration laws that are the laughing stock of the world.

The reality is that our laws, right now, are simply incapable of allowing us to do the things we need to do to enforce our laws. We can both enforce our laws, have good laws that allow us to prevent people from just crossing our border willy-nilly; and we can also have laws that allow us to help those who are actually fully deserving of our asylum.

We can do both, but right now the system is really serving no one well. The laws can’t be enforced. And if you’re a legitimate asylum seeker right now, you are lost in a maze of thousands of other people who really won’t, probably won’t, get asylum anyway. So you’re not being served well either, if you’re truly a victim and truly deserving of asylum.

Doescher: Will deploying the military help stop these caravans?

Inserra: The U.S. needs strong border security, and there are many active measures the U.S. can take to ensure that individuals cannot sneak across our border. These include barriers, technology, and personnel deployed in ways that maximize efficiency. But again, the U.S.’s problem right now isn’t finding and stopping those who cross the border illegally. The U.S. has actually gotten quite good at that.

The real problem is our weak asylum system and the loopholes that prevent proper enforcement of U.S. laws. If more troops are deployed to the border, they might help improve the number of border-crossers apprehended, but the Department of Homeland Security would still be releasing many of them.

Border security is only as good as the enforcement that backs it up. Only when U.S. laws are well enforced will they deter more illegal immigration.

(Author David Inserra specializes in cyber and homeland security policy, including protection of critical infrastructure, as policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies., Ana Quintana is a senior policy analyst for Latin America and the Western Hemisphere in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. and Timothy Doescher is associate director of coalition relations at The Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom.)

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