John Dickson: How Trump broke the border

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PITTSFIELD — If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A corollary to this wise saying is if it ain't working, stop what you're doing and try something different.

By now, it's pretty obvious our immigration system is broke; it requires fixing. It's also increasingly evident that the all-deterrence, all-loud-talk approach on the border followed by President Trump and his aide Stephen Miller ain't working.

In June 2015, when Trump announced he was running for president, he said that he would put an end to the people "with problems" coming across our border: "I speak to border guards and they tell us what we're getting...They're sending us not the right people. It's coming from more than Mexico. It's coming from all over South and Latin America, and it's coming probably — probably — from the Middle East. But we don't know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don't know what's happening. And it's got to stop and it's got to stop fast." He later went on to announce his solution: build a wall. We now know that the whole notion of a wall was a sound bite proposed by a Trump campaign aide to get the candidate to remember to talk about immigration (New York Times, Jan. 5).

Trump turned a campaign memory device into a fixation that motivated his shutdown of the federal government for five weeks. He has sent the military to the border, separated migrant children from their parents, proposed cutting off aid to Central American countries, cancelled the Dreamer program for children of unauthorized migrants, ended temporary protected status for citizens from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Sudan and Honduras, banned visitors from eight, mostly Muslim, countries, refused asylum requests from migrants who did not cross into the U.S. between official border entries, sent asylum seekers back to Mexico as they await adjudication, eliminated the provision of gang and domestic violence as criteria for asylum requests and reduced the number of refugee admissions to a historic low.

NOT STOPPING FAST

How has Trump's approach worked? Has he been able to stop it fast? For the month of June 2015, when he announced his campaign, migrant apprehensions along the border were 38,296; in March of this year, after almost three years of his policies, apprehensions hit an all-time high of 103,492. That means more people are trying to cross the border now. In 2015, asylum requests surpassed 80,000; three years later, requests for asylum reached 106,147. The backlog for adjudicating asylum requests is now 850,000 cases.

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More migrants coming, more seeking asylum, more waiting in the U.S. while their applications are reviewed. This is not stopping anything fast.

In fact, the president's bluster may actually be encouraging more migrants to take their chances on a journey to the border now. The family separations policy from last summer didn't dissuade family members from coming; the numbers have increased. There is, in addition, anecdotal evidence that migrant smugglers are using Trump's language to encourage people to move now.

Trump's harshest border proposals have run counter not only to the values but also to the laws of the U.S., resulting in court challenges and injunctions halting their implementation. When officials at Homeland Security argued against pursuing these questionable practices, Trump had them removed. This has sowed further confusion at the border, a chaos that migrant smugglers take full advantage of.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has witnessed and dealt with mass migrations, from the Cuban boat lift in the 1980s to the Haitian exodus in the 1990s. Border apprehensions peaked at 1.6 million in 2001. Each time, there was a surge in public interest and then successive administrations under Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama dug in and addressed the increasing numbers (no real surge happened in the first Bush administration). They left a track record of policies that helped reduce the flows and backlogs. More asylum judges, hearing asylum cases in the sending countries, offering aid and trade to support economic opportunities and physical security in sending countries and cooperating with sending countries to limit exodus. These proven steps, including negotiating with Cuba on migration, helped reduce backlogs and tamper a border crisis. Instead, the solution is focused on a wall.     

There may be one area where the Trump approach is working. When he mentions the border and the wall at this campaign rallies, he is still able to get the same cheers and chants to build the wall. The chaos at the border that he imagined in 2015 and that he has exacerbated ever since has now finally arrived. It appears that in the Trump world-view, it's only the political advantage that counts; neither the border, nor the people at the border do.

John Dickson is a retired U.S. diplomat and member of the Peace Corps Community for Refugees.


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