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Editorial: Trump's border crisis is made in the USA

The Editors, Bloomberg News on

Published in Op Eds

The Trump administration says the U.S. faces a "national security and humanitarian crisis" at its southwest border. The situation has indeed deteriorated -- and President Trump's approach to the issue is one reason why. His misguided policies have made a surge of asylum seekers from Central America harder to handle, and diverted attention and resources from a problem that has been building over the last decade.

The number of undocumented border crossers apprehended last month was the highest February total since 2007. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified last week that "illegal immigration is spiraling out of control and threatening public safety and national security." She said apprehensions were on track to hit about 900,000 this year.

Granted, apprehensions were even higher nearly every year from 1983 to 2006. (They peaked at 1.6 million in 2000.) And as the Department of Homeland Security reported in September 2017, "the southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before." It estimated that successful illegal entries into the U.S. fell from 1.8 million in 2000 to slightly under 200,000 in 2016.

But this new spike is different. Families and unaccompanied children from Central America made up 65 percent of those apprehended last month. Unlike the mostly single Mexican males who have historically sought to sneak into the country, this new cohort is mostly applying for asylum. In many cases, they want to get caught.

Violence and poverty push people to move north. In addition, though, a dysfunctional asylum system exerts a strong pull, because it all but guarantees even unqualified applicants temporary haven. Last year, fewer than 15 percent of asylum applicants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were granted asylum. But 98.5 percent of the 94,285 Central Americans who were apprehended in 2017 entering the U.S. illegally as a family unit are still here.

Kevin McAleenan, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, summed up the problem: Central American families "know that DHS must release them within 20 days, under court order, and that they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely while awaiting immigration court proceedings." With a growing backlog of nearly 830,000 cases, the wait can be years.

Rather than fixing the asylum system, the Trump administration has tried to drive applicants away. Federal courts blocked the effort to separate children from their families and to refuse applications from people crossing the border illegally between ports of entry. Now officials are trying to discourage asylum seekers at ports of entry by "metering" applications and forcing them to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. (This may be unlawful too.)

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In any event, the result is perverse: More asylum seekers are crossing the border illegally, in large groups, with the aim of turning themselves in. This is good news for the cartels that profit from their plight and use the ensuing distraction to draw resources away from policing drug-smuggling elsewhere on the border.

The answer isn't walls and states of emergency, but more immigration judges and better policies. Process cases faster and the incentive to file bogus claims would diminish. That means appointing more judges, fixing the courts' paper-based record-keeping system, hiring more asylum officers and letting them bring cases to conclusion. Press Mexico to control its southern border, where enforcement has lagged under the new administration. Don't cut aid to Central America: Boost it, to strengthen justice and expand economic opportunity.

Not long ago, Trump shut down the government in a failed attempt to wrestle $5.7 billion from Congress for his wall. Fixing the asylum system would cost a fraction of that. In addition, it would actually work.

(c)2019 Bloomberg News

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