President of the United States Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address during the 59th Presidential Inauguration. – Washington, DC – January 20, 2021 (Shutterstock)
By Peter Boogaard, USA Today
Do you have to be cruel to secure the southern border? This is an undercurrent in the debate about increased migration, and it came to the forefront during President Joe Biden’s news conference Thursday. Conventional wisdom says that if you make life miserable for people seeking refuge, they won’t try to come. But that ignores facts and historical context.
We’ve just left behind four years of President Donald Trump’s cruelty as a deterrence border policy and saw firsthand that his approach was a failure by any moral, substantive or political measure. We can’t return to those misguided policies.
Let’s start with the facts: Border apprehensions are up significantly, as they were in 2014, 2016 and 2019. Similar to those years, we’ve seen an increase in families and unaccompanied children claiming asylum at the border, all vulnerable populations that require unique care and logistics to ensure their safety. The government is still trying to rebuild its processing capacity after Trump spent four years dismantling it. Coupled with the increased COVID-19 safety protocols, this is a substantial challenge.
Wave began under Trump policies
This most recent migration increase started in April 2020, after Trump had put in effect some of his harshest border policies and long before Biden took office. And now, just as in 2014, 2016 and 2019, the border remains secure.
There are nearly 20,000 border patrol agents at the southern border, and we have invested more than $300 billion in border security over the last two decades. Families and children fleeing violence and persecution are not overrunning the border; they are largely presenting themselves to border patrol agents to claim asylum. The wealthiest and most powerful country on earth can treat people fleeing for their lives with care and dignity while also keeping our families and communities safe.
Immigration and border security are complicated issues, but we cannot forget the consequences of Trump’s policies. He and his team essentially eliminated the asylum system and decimated the U.S. government’s ability to process arrivals effectively. They canceled programs that allowed migrants to apply from their home countries, and terminated aid programs for the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which addressed the original causes of migration.
They also accelerated the misguided policy of militarizing the southern border— as if we were facing armed invaders — instead of investing in systems to help desperate children and families fleeing violence and seeking freedom. These policies contributed to increases in irregular migration we see today.
Further, through the cruel policy of family separation, and systematically blocking tens of thousands from legally seeking asylum, people were forced to try and enter between ports instead of seeking legal admission in an orderly fashion through a port of entry. The results were clear: In FY 2019, after two years of Trump’s border policies, nearly 1 million people were apprehended at our borders, the highest year-to-year increase since the 1940s.
Similarly, sending people back to Mexico to wait or expelling them rapidly under a public health statute didn’t act as a deterrent. We saw a steady increase in apprehensions starting in April 2020 that has continued to today. And, as Biden said last week, no one would suggest that those increases were happening because Trump was a nice guy.
Cruelty didn’t work as a deterrent and it was wildly unpopular. People across the country rejected his family separation policies, contributing to Republicans’ electoral defeats in 2018 and 2020. Biden is right to take a new approach, both because of the human toll and also because the policies weren’t effective over the long term. As he expands capacity to process families and children with dignity, he and Vice President Kamala Harris also plan to address the underlying conditions driving migration.
Kindness doesn’t equal weakness
People seeking humanitarian relief or a better life in the United States should be able to apply closer to home, as opposed to only at the border through the asylum system. Expanding programs like the Central American Minors program, while establishing refugee processing in the Western Hemisphere, would increase legal channels and reduce activity at the border.
Providing aid to the Northern Triangle will help improve conditions in that region and reduce the push factors driving people away from their homes. And leveraging U.S. regional partnerships to expand refugee protections and overall resettlement across the hemisphere will improve conditions for migrants and further expand overall resettlement capacity for people in need of protection. These steps will establish a fair and orderly migration process, while ensuring vital asylum protections, and help keep our families and communities safe and our border secure.
Every day when I drop my two kids off at school, I tell them to be kind. Never once have I thought that meant they weren’t also going to be strong. Cruelty doesn’t equal strength and it certainly isn’t an effective long-term border strategy. So we are left with a binary choice: return to Trump’s failed policies, or embrace a new approach. Biden has a plan to finally take action on the root causes of migration and to fix our long broken immigration system. He should continue to follow through on it.