The debate over immigration is coming to a head as the human caravan of thousands wends its way through Mexico toward the U.S. This is a stark reminder of the challenge we face in securing our southern border, and it brings into focus the failure of current immigration policy to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
For those of us living on Long Island, far from the Mexican border, the problem may seem distant, but its impact is felt across the country, and it needs to be dealt with in a firm and fair way. We’re a nation of immigrants, and our ancestors all came from somewhere else, seeking a better life here. It’s a tribute to our way of life that people from around the world want to come to America.
But we must get a handle on the flood of illegal immigration, or we face the danger of being overwhelmed by this human tide. And in communities across Long Island that have been negatively impacted by the notorious MS-13 gang, the threat is immediate and serious. It’s here, it’s now and it’s real.
The countries from which many of the travelers heading north come from are disasters in almost every way. Their economies are severely depressed, their governments incorrigibly corrupt, their societies riddled with crime and gang violence. In Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — and even much of Mexico — the domestic situation is so precarious that given the chance, millions of people would head north to America.
The truly compassionate thing to do is enforce a systematic screening process to allow a manageable flow of immigrants into the U.S. Instead, current policy encourages would-be immigrants to take terrible chances with their lives to cross dangerous territory often controlled by human smugglers and criminal elements. Immigrant caravans are supposedly organized to provide safety in numbers for those making this dangerous journey, but they only encourage more desperate refugees to join the trek north, swelling the immigration crisis to even greater proportions.
That’s why the emergency measures being put in place by the Trump administration to deal with the crisis are not misplaced. It is essential that our government send an unequivocal message that we will not allow our southern border to become meaningless.
Many of the people heading north right now intend to take advantage of a glaring loophole in U.S. immigration law to claim asylum status in the U.S. By simply making it to the border and declaring they are fleeing violence at home, these immigrants are automatically granted legal standing, which allows them to stay here while their cases are adjudicated. But because most are released until those cases can be heard, there is a powerful incentive for them to simply melt away and join millions of others living here illegally.
And for those who aren’t released, there’s the wrenching problem of what to do with families crossing our borders with young children. The scenes of these children being separated from their parents, and of families held in detention centers, are heart-wrenching, but they are a natural consequence of a policy that encouraged the flood in the first place.
If potential illegal immigrants know in advance that they won’t automatically be allowed to cross our border and assert asylum status, many may decide to stay at home and try to come here the right and legal way. In this context, the decision to send U.S. troops to enforce a border separation makes perfectly good sense, and may in fact be the only way to keep our borders from being breached by hundreds of thousands more asylum seekers.
Mexico can and should help with this effort to secure our mutual border. The Mexican government could emulate the system being put in place in Eastern Europe to stem the western flow of illegal immigrants. Immigration processing centers are being established outside Western Europe, to process migrants and determine their legal status before they are allowed to travel west.
A similar orderly processing system south of our Mexican border would be the most humane way to handle the flow of migration north. It would be unfortunate, though necessary, if American troops have to meet civilian migrants at the border and repel their advance into the U.S. The asylum loophole should be closed, and the process should require that before obtaining asylum, migrants apply outside the U.S. to qualify for this protected status.
These are the reasonable measures that could help stem the tide of human misery flowing our way.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.