Tonight the president will address the nation to speak about the crisis he believes exists along America’s southern border. The one he sees doesn’t exist. Unauthorized immigration is on the decline, and not only are undocumented immigrants less likely to commit crime, but the communities they live in have lower crime rates. Those trying to cross the border in 2018 were not gang members but predominantly parents with children fleeing the dangers of living in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. As one migrant waiting on the Mexican side of the border for his chance to apply for asylum, “I don’t have an option, I can’t be there,” Juan Escobar Moreno told The New York Times of his native Honduras. “Our government is totally corrupt, and if the Mexicans or Americans deport me, I’m dead.”
Whether by cruel design or ill-considered governance, the Trump Administration has created a crisis though—a humanitarian one that will not be solved by a wall. The “zero tolerance” policy and efforts to slow down the asylum application process has created problems on multiple fronts. In the United States, Department of Justice (DOJ) policy changes have increased the need for places to hold the asylum applicants because it no longer allows them to be released until the date for their asylum hearings. There is a particular need for places to house children—a growing need as families try to get away from homelands dominated by gangs, violence and corruption. Because the system is not prepared for the number of children it has to deal with, signs of stress are showing. Two children have died, and evidence of mistreatment of children has emerged. Still, as The New York Times’ Caitlin Dickerson says, there has been little effort on the part of the government to deal with this problem. As she says, “All of the focus is on deterrence. None of it is on the real situation on the ground, this dire situation.”
On Sunday, the White House did ask lawmakers for $800 million for humanitarian relief, but in addition to the $5.7 billion Trump wants for wall, that request sounds more like a pot sweetener than a genuine desire to address a situation that he neglected for much of 2018.
In Mexico, families looking to apply for asylum are now living in shantytowns and makeshift accommodations while waiting their turn to apply for asylum. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has used a process known as “metering” to limit the number of applicants that it will process in a day. The lawsuit Al Otro Lado v. Nielsen filed in August in California contends that the practice is unlawful as since 2016 it has turned away asylum applicants who have followed government guidelines and applied in the required manner at designated ports of entry.
In November, Trump announced that asylum seekers will have to wait in Mexico for the court date for their hearings. It's not clear that he has the authority to unilaterally change asylum law, but if Trump's plan becomes law, that would likely add at least six months to their stay in Mexico.
Whatever the case, the result of the processing slowdown is unsafe, resulting in unhealthy conditions in the towns on the Mexican side of the border, and a growing market for coyotes—human smugglers—who prey on fearful asylum-seekers desperate to enter the United States one way or another.
There is a crisis that needs to be dealt with on the southern border, but it’s not one that will be solved by a wall—historically a poor solution for even its intended purpose—or act as leverage to help President Trump “win” the shutdown. Those who are concerned about the situations can support organizations that work to help the immigrant community (we have a partial list here), and can contact legislators to advocate for a more just and humane border policy. There is a legitimate conversation to have about what border security should look like in 2019 and the years to come, but a giant NO facing toward Mexico and Central America isn’t the answer.