The ‘real’ border crisis: The US immigration system isn’t built for kids and families

Updated:

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Three women rest against a fence with their children in their laps

Immigrant women hold their children along the border wall as they await apprehension after illegally crossing into the US from Mexico in August 2018. Immigration advocates say the "real" border crisis is the fact that the US immigration system is not prepared for the children and families seeking asylum. 

Credit:

Adrees Latif/Reuters

In an address to the nation Tuesday night, US President Donald Trump made a case for $5.7 billion to build a border wall to stop the "humanitarian and security crisis" on the US-Mexico border.

"This barrier is absolutely critical to border security," he said. "It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need."

There is indeed an immigration crisis at the southern border, say immigration experts from across the political spectrum — but it's not the crisis Trump is talking about.

The “real” crisis, experts say, is the makeup of migrants now coming in — they’re far likelier than ever to be children and families seeking asylum — and they’re encountering an immigration infrastructure that was not built to care for them. That much has been underscored by the deaths of two recently arrived migrant children in federal custody last month: 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo. And a wall is unlikely to solve any of those problems.

The border funding impasse has shut down the US government for more than two weeks. Trump said Friday the shutdown could last “months or years” and is considering declaring a national emergency to get it, though he did not declare one in Tuesday's address. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders announced on Twitter that Trump would visit the border on Thursday.

Related: Have ‘17,000 criminals’ really been apprehended at the US-Mexico border?

“To call it a national security crisis or an emergency — there is no basis in that at all,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under former President Barack Obama. “Now, it’s Central Americans, frequently coming in with their children. And they are not seeking to evade our authorities. They are seeking our authorities to turn themselves in and ask for asylum and for our help.”

Overall border crossings have declined to their lowest level in decades. About 400,000 migrants were apprehended by Border Patrol in fiscal year 2018, according to US Customs and Border Protection, down from 1.6 million in 2000. Though Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and other administration officials said recently that CBP has stopped 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from crossing the border in fiscal year 2018, documents obtained by NBC News showed the actual number is far lower: just six for the first half of that period.

And a growing portion of migrants being apprehended are indeed families with children, or kids traveling alone. In November, more than 25,000 families turned themselves in, a historic high. They now comprise more than half of all apprehensions.

Related: US officials reject blame for migrant girl’s death. Advocates point to Trump’s asylum policies.

They tend to be fleeing violence, poverty and political corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Under US immigration laws, people have the right to apply for asylum even if they’ve entered the country illegally.

And under a 1995 agreement known as the Flores settlement, the US government may not detain children (and, by extension, adult family members who arrived with them) longer than 20 days. They are then released until they get a court date before an immigration judge, a practice Trump often calls “catch and release.” His administration also calls Flores a “loophole,” though it’s actually a protection for asylum-seekers who genuinely fear being sent home.

Regardless of a wall, all of that would continue to happen so long as Central Americans keep entering the US, legally or illegally. Yet all the Trump administration’s recent efforts around asylum-seekers — including its “zero tolerance” family separation policy, its just-announced “remain in Mexico” policy, and an attempt to temporarily ban unauthorized border-crossers from applying for asylum — are aimed at deterring migration rather than processing asylum-seekers and protecting their rights.

“The problem with the wall is that it’s geared toward migrant flows in the past, which are the adults who primarily came from Mexico seeking work, and those numbers are way down,” said Randy Capps, director of research for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC. “So, it’s kind of like they’re fighting the last war.”

And there’s evidence asylum-seekers are actually drawn by the United States’ broken immigration system. A case backlog in the hundreds of thousands means it’s often years before they’re resolved.  

The debate over the wall, Capps says, is “diverting resources from these other priorities, which I believe are more important.”

That might include hiring more asylum case adjudicators or increasing CBP agents at ports of entry, where more people are now arriving to claim asylum.

Related: For some Texans on the border, more walls and patrols won’t solve the immigration crisis

Further, a wall would do nothing to end the root cause of the United States’ asylum crisis, which begins long before people arrive at the border.

“The true crisis is that people are leaving miserable lives in Central America, and they’re not going to stop coming unless there is better governance there,” says Mark Feierstein, a former Obama administration official who served as senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council. “The US has capacity to take these people in and to process their claims, and our border is already generally well-protected through a combination of walls and fencing and patrols.”

Instead of investing in those areas, the Trump administration’s policies would appear to exacerbate some of the problems that push people to migrate. It threatened to cut foreign aid to the Northern Triangle, which experts including Feierstein say would only encourage migration. And in 2017, the State Department shut down the Central American minors program, an Obama-era initiative that allowed children to apply for refugee status in their home countries, without having to make the often-treacherous journey from the Northern Triangle to the United States.

Related: As US ends immigration programs, a mother and son wonder if they'll ever be together again

Focus on the wall is overly simplistic, and the United States’ complex immigration problems deserve a much more nuanced debate than Congress and the president are having, says Tamar Jacoby, head of ImmigrationWorks USA,  a federation of small businesses that advocates for immigration reform.

“The metaphor is — there’s a patient on the operating table, and we’re just shouting at each other over the sick body,” she says. “Both sides see it as a plaything for their base. They’re not really having a conversation about the important things. They’re talking about should the wall be made of concrete or metal slats? It’s a ridiculous conversation.”

It also risks alienating Mexico, the United States’ crucial ally in cutting uncontrolled migration. Last month, Nielsen announced a sweeping “remain in Mexico” plan, where asylum-seekers would be returned there to wait pending a judge’s decision on their application. It’s unclear whether that plan is moving forward.

“You can't just drop these people in Mexico as if they were garbage that you sort of throw over the fence to a neighbor's house,” says Jorge Guajardo, who spent nearly a decade in Mexico’s diplomatic corps.

“[President Trump is] pretending to be tough in a situation in which there is no need to be tough,” he added. "These are women, these are children. These are not terrorists the way they have been portrayed. ... President Trump campaigned on a wall and now seems as if he's in a straightjacket trying to create a crisis to justify his wall. There is no crisis.”

Hear more of Jorge Guajardo's interview with The World.

Related Content