Thursday, February 2, 2023

The U.S. Southern Border: Repeating History in Response to Humanitarian Challenges

The Biden administration and the new House Judiciary Committee both treat the U.S. southern border as a crisis. It is very disappointing that the Biden administration buys into this rhetoric. Violence and unrest force thousands of residents from El Salvador, Guatemala, and other regions of Central America to flee from their homes, seeking safety in the United States. Upon arrival, they are detained. Asylum is denied at high rates. Migrant children are held for long periods of time, while their parents are arrested. Enforcement policies are implemented to deter asylum seekers, while legal challenges are filed to restore due process and to challenge detention conditions. This picture describes the circumstances facing Central American and other migrants today, but the images aptly describe what took place in the 1980s as well.

Then, as now, the United States' approach to what is essentially a mixed refugee flow has been mischaracterized as an illegal immigration problem. As a result, U.S. strategy has predominately been motivated by a desire to deter people from coming. Many of the tactics used in the 1980s are the same today. What we should have learned then, and what should be clear to us now, is that deterrence is not only wrong, but given the challenge, deterrence policy simply will not work. In the process, refugees are forced to endure more unnecessary hardship. In order to really move forward, we have to learn from the lessons of the past. We have refused to treat mixed refugee flows in our hemisphere-- principally from Latin America, and additionally Haiti--as humanitarian challenges rather than illegal immigration challenges.

There is a better way than simply repeating our mistakes of the past. The solution begins with recognizing the challenge for what it is--tens of thousands of human beings--fleeing serious violence. We need to invest in a fair and efficient adjudicatory process and get serious about working with partners in the region to increase citizen security, and reduce poverty. Yes, we should demand more from the governments we support, but the demand should not be a mindless “stop your people” from leaving or forcing displaced persons from seeking protection in other violent states. The demand should be about security and investment for citizens of the region.
Spending billions on harsh border enforcement that preys on human beings seeking refuge is wrongheaded. Rather, we should focus on reducing the need for people to migrate while ensuring we have fair and humane procedures in place domestically, regionally, and internationally to handle those who flee and have claims for protection. We also should be re-thinking refugee definitions themselves--criteria fixed in a period of time long past that are overly restrictive, inadequate to deal with the gang and gender-based violence that we are increasingly seeing. At the same time, we need to re-think our commitment to fair legal process. For decades, the process has been entirely inadequate, further contributing to the pressures on our system. Relying on the goodwill of pro bono attorneys and under-funded legal services programs is a severely deficient approach that I have witnessed and participated in since the 1970s.
In short, let's learn from and acknowledge our past and current mistakes. Then let's implement policies and procedures that are cognizant of the reasons migrants are fleeing today, while working on sensible, regional solutions.
Read more here.

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