Source: USA Today
While a leadership shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security may have spun last week's news cycles, solving humanitarian and border security challenges requires a deeper understanding of migration drivers and influences that contribute to mass immigration. We must look beyond the border region itself to understand where we can make strategic investments and find policy solutions that will garner permanent results. To that end, we must tackle the root causes at each stage of the migration journey.
Transnational criminal organizations, political instability, and a besieged economy have wreaked chaos on the northern triangle countries of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — which has contributed to a surge in migration. The U.S. needs to help stabilize the region by aiding in the establishment of the rule of law and fostering opportunities for economic development.
Take Plan Colombia, for example. In the early 2000s, Colombia faced a similar crisis due to violence fueled by guerrilla warfare, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. In partnership with the Colombian government, the U.S. deployed a security and development plan that helped fortify government institutions, reduced violence, and sparked economic growth. More recently, a bipartisan congressional delegation was briefed on how increased aid to El Salvador has demonstrated positive results in limiting migration from the country. We can draw upon these lessons of success and apply them to today’s challenges.
Although escaping immediate fear of violence is widely perceived as the primary current migration driver, emigrants often flee to pursue educational opportunities, reunite with family, or access healthcare and improved economic opportunities. With that in mind, it is important to go beyond nation-building activities and find ways to stimulate the economy and societal systems. A country reliant on illicit behavior, such as human trafficking or drugs, needs alternative sources for growth. We must work with local authorities and businesses to make the investments necessary to maintain stability and increase economic prosperity in the region. Economic opportunities will decrease the number of economic migrants illegally entering Mexico and the U.S.
Still, foreign aid will continue to play a vital role as it can build police capacity to combat gang violence and improve education and healthcare systems. One positive step was the U.S. support of the Alliance for Prosperity, a joint agreement plan between governments in the Northern Triangle that committing funding to promote prosperity and regional integration, strengthen governance, and improve security in the region.
What more can be done in Mexico
As migrants continue to flow into Mexico, the country has become the primary transit zone for Central American emigrants. Although Mexico has taken important steps to secure the passage of legitimate asylum seekers, they need to do more to crack down on transnational criminal organizations and human smugglers who profit on moving thousands of people through the country, often abetted by corrupt police.
Under Lopez Obrador’s government, Mexico’s National Migration Institute issued thousands of humanitarian visas to stay and work in Mexico, but due to the overwhelming response and limited capacity, this initiative had to be shut down in February. Further, the government has yet to deploy federal police to secure the southern border with Guatemala, leading to an uptick in caravans and human trafficking. Mexico continues to respond to caravans as ad hoc emergencies rather than as a lasting change of migration in the region.
Prior to her resignation, Secretary Nielsen met with senior Mexican officials to identify ways to collaborate with Mexico and regional countries to control migration flow and discuss border security. The U.S. can help Mexico improve its refugee and asylum systems, aid Mexico’s law enforcement agencies so they can reduce gang and drug violence, and curtail local cartels that participate in smuggling people from Mexico into the U.S. At the same time, we can do more to support the Mexican government with the development of a more effective asylum system.
Government must respond beyond border
Once migrants reach the U.S. southern border, we continue to rely on a border enforcement policy that is unable to effectively handle migrant surges caused by humanitarian crises. Rather than boosting the immigration system’s capacity to meet these shifts, the United States has relied on deterrence to try to stem these migrant flows which have strained both CBP and the immigration court system.
While there does need to be a clearly defined policy outlining the consequences of illegally immigrating to the U.S., we should use resources more effectively — and increase resources as necessary — to efficiently and humanely manage the flow of migrants. This is not a challenge for DHS to solve alone, it calls for a whole of government response.
Importantly, we need to hire more immigration judges to handle cases as the backlog now exceeds 800,000 accord to TRAC. Immigration court resources have not been sized in proportion to the dramatic growth of front-line border enforcement resources in the post 9/11 period. These imbalances must be addressed given the dramatic change in the character of today’s migration flows.
Central Americans will continue to flee to the U.S. if they do not have another viable alternative. While deterrence is important, a far more holistic strategy that addresses issues at every stage of the migration route will have a more permanent impact. Through creating stability regionally, increased security in Mexico, and enhanced processing capacity in the U.S., we can move toward solving this crisis.
Michael Chertoff is executive chairman and co-founder of The Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm, and served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2005-2009. He is the author of “Exploding Data: Reclaiming Our Cybersecurity in the Digital Age.” Jayson Ahern served as the former acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Department of Homeland Security. He is a principal at The Chertoff Group and runs the firms strategic advisory services.