President Trump seems to think that holding children and families in federal government custody without beds, soap, toothbrushes or even adequate food might stem migration from Central America. Recent reporting on these conditions in migrant detention facilities has intensified critiques of this administration’s brutal approach to the families who are coming in record numbers to our southern border. In an apparent response to that scrutiny, Trump said in a tweet, “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!"
The suggestion that subjecting migrants to appalling conditions might serve as a deterrent is not just cruel; it conveys a grave misunderstanding of the forces that drive people to undertake this dangerous journey and of what it will take to manage the number of people arriving at the border.
That’s why, while Democratic members of Congress and presidential candidates are rightly drawing attention to the plight of migrants, they need to do more than condemn the current conditions; they need to show that unlike Trump, they understand the nature of the crisis, both at the border and at its origins in Central America. And they need to offer the country a workable plan to address it.
The first thing that elected representatives and candidates need to make clear in their discussions of immigration — and that Trump’s “just tell them not to come” rhetoric ignores — is that the surge in migration we have seen is not simply a border management issue. This is a refugee and humanitarian crisis in our backyard, fueled by the inability of governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to protect their own citizens from violence perpetrated by armed gangs and drug traffickers who act with impunity. It is also fueled by economic desperation, the impact of climate change in the region and a host of other challenges that this administration is ignoring as it grapples with the migration that ensues.
Democrats need to focus on redeveloping avenues for people in the region to seek safety without undertaking the dangerous trek across Mexico. President Barack Obama’s State Department piloted in-country refugee processing for children, which then expanded into a program for adults, to provide people a less dangerous way to get to safety. Central to that program was the understanding that this crisis deserves a regional response; the answer to the situation in Central America is never going to be that everyone in need comes to the United States. At the end of the Obama administration, Costa Rica had stepped up to begin accepting migrants who were minors processed in the region. The Trump administration has largely shut this down, leaving desperate people with no avenue other than to come north, and Democrats should pledge to reinvigorate it.
To be sure, this migrant surge — which several reports suggest eased somewhat in June — would be a challenge for any administration. The administration in which we served faced smaller but similar surges in 2014 and 2016. Having had this experience, we know that tools available to government in this situation are woefully inadequate, but brutality should not be one of them.
The first principle for those who are governing and seek to govern must be to apply the law with humanity and compassion. This means honoring the humanitarian claims of those who qualify for them and dealing humanely with those who do not. Those seeking asylum deserve a full and fair opportunity to make their case, preferably with legal assistance, and receive a timely answer.
This also means increasing resources for immigration judges, ramping up case management programs that are both less expensive and more effective than detention in ensuring that migrants appear at their hearings, and increasing the resources available for legal representation. If Congress fails to act, the executive branch can send independent and trained adjudicators to fairly decide who qualifies and who doesn’t.
Members of Congress and candidates for president should also commit to improving the facilities where migrants go when they first encounter our officials. The physical infrastructure at the border is designed for the border that existed 25 years ago, when the typical migrant was an adult traveling alone and evading our authorities. Today, migrants are more typically families who look for the Border Patrol so they can turn themselves in. We need physical structures that are suitable for processing families with children and for children traveling alone, and personnel trained to deal with people who arrive traumatized and exhausted. Surely we can dedicate some of the enormous resources that pay for detention facilities to this purpose.
The scale of the current crisis, when measured by the sheer number of people coming to the US border, is roughly twice what we faced in the last administration. The challenges for this administration — and the next one if the government changes hands after next year — are enormous. Democratic leaders and those seeking leadership roles must acknowledge that. They need to convince Americans not just that they’re more compassionate than Trump but also that they understand the problem that they are seeking to address and have a plan to solve it.
* Denis McDonough is an executive fellow at the Keough School for Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Cecilia Muñoz is the vice president for public interest technology and local initiatives at public policy think-tank New America. This article was first published in The New York Times.