Op-Ed: Here’s how to handle Central American migrants — like the Cuban rafters and Soviet Jews before them

A six-year-old sits on the shoulders of her mother as they look out through the fence of a immigrant shelter in Piedras Negras, Mexico on Feb. 5.
(Jerry Lara / Associated Press)

The United States has a long history of responding to migration emergencies with legislative remedies crafted for specific situations. Sometimes, the intent has been to open doors, at other times to close them. The current influx of Central American asylum seekers at our southern border also needs a highly targeted fix.

Unfortunately, what’s on the table in the negotiations now underway in Washington has little chance of solving the problem, or worse, aims to solve the wrong problem.

Every proposal for a “wall,” whether big and beautiful or smart and high-tech, assumes the top priority at the border is stopping illicit entries through unguarded countryside. That’s the wrong place to look. The Central Americans who have caused so much consternation of late are lined up at the official crossing points so they can apply for asylum with U.S. authorities.


However many millions of dollars are dispatched to immigration enforcement this year, the migration of Central Americans to our border will continue.

In dealing with asylum seekers, the Obama administration followed the lead of several administrations that preceded it and adopted policies of deterrence that sought to discourage weak and fraudulent claims by raising the costs—physical, financial and psychological—of getting through the process successfully. President Trump has taken this kind of deterrence to inhumane and, as the courts have found repeatedly, illegal extremes. No lasting reduction in the number of asylum seekers has resulted from all the various forms of detention, accelerated hearings and removals.

Proposals to make the asylum system fairer and more efficient are the most common alternative to deterrence. Immigrant advocates, seeing an influx of persons fleeing violence and insecurity, argue for more immigration judges and streamlined procedures. That approach is a start, but wouldn’t be nearly enough.

For the foreseeable future, tens of thousands of people a year will continue leaving Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This migration must be addressed over the long term with more money and greater urgency. In some ways, building economies that can provide a decent living to the population is the easy part, although it will take years. Establishing the rule of law in these countries will need to be a generational project. And the devastation of croplands because of climate change might be irreparable.

Against such push factors, deterrence is a losing game. Spending on border security has been escalating for a quarter century to diminishing effect, and a decade of expanding the number of detention beds also hasn’t worked. However many millions of dollars are dispatched to immigration enforcement this year, the migration of Central Americans to our border will continue.

If the flow cannot be deterred, neither can it be absorbed entirely within the asylum process. Too many of the migrants, even those with deeply compelling claims for safety and assistance, will not fit easily into the narrow categories of U.S. asylum law.


What is needed, then, is a set of policies that address the particularities of today’s Central American migration. Fortunately, a considerable toolbox has developed from multiple experiences with similar challenges. Mexican farm workers, Hungarian refugees, Vietnamese boat people, Soviet Jews, Cuban rafters, Haitian boat people, and in the 1990s a different set of Central American migrants have all been addressed with targeted legislation and policies.

Some substantial number of Central Americans will continue to bring valid pleas to the asylum system. We can better honor our moral and legal commitments to the principle of “non-refoulement” -- not returning people to danger -- by creating alternative channels for worthy migrants fleeing chaos at home who would not likely qualify for asylum. That would take some of the pressure off the machinery of adjudicating immigration cases now collapsing under its caseload.

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Several legal pathways could be crafted. Women and children reuniting with men already here could be admitted with narrowly tailored family visas. Single males could be granted time-limited humanitarian visas, or they might be directed to existing temporary worker programs. Regardless of the mechanism, the selection criteria would be specific, the programs would have sunset provisions, and the new visas would not substantially increase total admissions beyond current levels.

The number of immigrants granted green cards has been topping a million a year since the turn of the millennium, and another 300,000 or so come in on short-term employment visas. A relatively small share of those yearly numbers, say 100,000 or so eventually, more at first, would replace the dangerous treks to the U.S. border with an orderly process. Meanwhile, Mexico’s new administration has taken in more than 10,000 Central Americans in just the last two months, launching a resettlement program aimed at meeting humanitarian obligations while also addressing labor shortages.

Special programs for Central Americans may seem politically far-fetched at the moment. But this is the kind of pragmatism—typically American and well-practiced in the past —that will better manage today’s immigration challenges and stay true to our beliefs about the kind of nation we strive to be.

Roberto Suro is a professor of public policy and director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC. T. Alexander Aleinikoff is university professor and director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School, where he also hosts the podcast “Tempest Tossed.”