President Donald Trump has cried wolf so many times on the "crisis" at the border that one could be forgiven for dismissing his latest warnings. But even if the situation at the border is not a full-fledged crisis, as his administration claims, there's no denying that a new rush of Central American asylum seekers has created a serious problem there.
Trump's proposed remedies—shutting down the border and/or forcing Mexico to warehouse the desperate families—will cost America dearly, both in dollars and in a national sense of humanity. There is, however, an innovative and simple fix that won't cost American taxpayers a dime, will ensure that these folks won't just disappear into the dark night if allowed in, and will give authorities more time to investigate their asylum claims: Hand migrants temporary work visas right off the bat, but make renewal dependent on them showing up for scheduled asylum hearings.
Call this the MASHA (Make America Secure and Humane Again) visa solution.
Border apprehensions reached a high of 1.6 million in 2000 and have been falling ever since. Last year, apprehensions hit a grand total of 400,000—about 90,000 more than the previous year to be sure, but nowhere close to "crisis" levels. And yet, Trump upped his rhetoric of a wall and started taking children away from migrant moms, some of whom have yet to be reunited.
But this year the uptick is significant. About 70,000 migrants were apprehended in February and around 100,000 in March alone. The vast majority are from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, where gang-related crime has reached epic proportions.
This rush is straining border facilities. In El Paso, border stations are 300 to 400 percent overcapacity, forcing authorities to cram migrants, chattel like, in makeshift holding pens, without beds or blankets. One pen was located under a bridge and constructed of barbed wire.
If Trump had used the billions of dollars he wants to spend on a useless border wall on personnel and immigration judges instead, things would not be so bad right now. But Trump is blaming the situation on "liberal courts" that last year, after the hue and cry over his child separation policy, barred his administration from keeping parents with kids in detention for more than 20 days. Hence, the administration argues, kids have become a "free ticket" into America for parents, and this is the main reason why more families — rather than single men or unaccompanied minors—are now showing up at the border.
To the extent that this is true, it's the administration's own fault. If it had not overplayed its hand and snatched infants from moms as a deterrence measure, the courts would never have had to step in. It's always been easier for parents with kids to gain admission in America. But the court ruling didn't just remove all ambiguity about the policy, it also publicized it.
However, the far bigger factor driving the rush isn't the greater ease of admission, but Trump's repeated threats to shutdown the border and scrap asylum. Although he can't do the latter without Congressional authorization, Central Americans are panicking that if they don't flee right now while they still have a chance, they'll get trapped in a dangerous situation without any exit options.
Whatever the cause of the problem, the question now is: How do we fix it?
For his part, Trump, after doubling down on his threat to shut down the border, has now postponed that option till next year if Mexico doesn't seal its border with Central America. In other words, he wants to use America's economic muscle to turn Mexico into a fortress.
But what would "closing the border" entail? Basically, closing official border crossings and redeploying personnel along the border. But this would be insanity given that Mexico is America's third largest trading partner. Those crossings process half a trillion dollars worth of trade annually. About 6.3 million trucks go back-and-forth between the two countries every year, transporting everything from auto parts to fresh produce. Mexico sends over $26 billion in intermediate goods for final assembly to America every year. If these parts can't come, many American factories will have to shutter, jeopardizing nearly 5 million jobs. American consumers everywhere will face higher food prices. The country will run out of avocados in three weeks. He's also threatening to impose tariffs on Mexican cars, which would essentially be a tax on American drivers!
None of this would even deter Central Americans. These migrants aren't trying to sneak in illegally. They look for border agents to turn themselves in to and request asylum, something they have a legal right to do under U.S. and international law. They'll go wherever the agents are. If there are more agents at ports, the migrants will go to the ports. If there are more between ports, then that's where they'll head.
Trump's other solution is to force migrants to wait in Mexico after filing their asylum claims, instead of releasing them into America. Mexico has been cooperating so far and is housing some 250 migrants in camps in Juarez and elsewhere. This is mainly because the number of migrants it is holding is not that large, and the country doesn't want to jeopardize ongoing trade negotiations. However, it's hard to imagine that it'll scale up the program without major bribes.
The Trump administration argues that when migrants are released, they disappear, never to be heard from again. But the Department of Justice's own figures show that 90 percent of asylum seekers do, in fact, show up for their asylum hearings for the very good reason that if they don't, they could lose their shot at ever gaining legal status.
If we want to boost compliance even more, creating MASHA visas could help.
This isn't a radical idea given how the asylum process already works. Right now, border patrol hands over anyone it apprehends who requests asylum to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE asks them if they have a "credible fear" of persecution, and if they answer in the affirmative, they are released but required to return in 45 days to a court for further questioning. Those whose fates aren't settled in 180 days, which is often the case given that right now there is a 855,000-immigration court backlog, can apply for a work permit pending a final resolution.
The administration claims that the border surge has overwhelmed the system so badly that border patrol is "catching and releasing" families and singles alike without any processing or a "credible fear" assessment by ICE. (Never mind that it evidently still has enough resources to fit these migrants with ankle monitors before release.) But restrictionists consider this a scandal and demand longer detentions even though it costs close to $319 per day to keep each migrant in semi-humane conditions.
The better strategy would be to hand the asylum seekers work permits right away—not 180 days later—and release them with the proviso that if they don't return for their hearing, they'd lose their visas. But if they do return, their visas would be renewed until the next hearing, and so on, until their cases are settled. It takes two years for the asylum process to play out right now, but so long as migrants keep showing up, even if takes longer to thoroughly investigate their situations, it wouldn't matter. At the end of it, if their petition is denied, they'll be deported, just as they are right now. But at least in the interim their upkeep wouldn't be taxpayers' headache.
This will no doubt irritate restrictionists who dislike immigrants on principle. They will argue that MASHA visas will turn asylum into even more of a guest worker program than it already is. Given that more guest worker programs for low-skilled migrants are the only real solution to unauthorized immigration, that would hardly be a bad thing. But this shouldn't bother those who merely want to boost compliance—not stick it to immigrants.
Everything Trump has tried in order to control the border has so far backfired. He equates more draconian measures with greater effectiveness. But there is no contradiction between humane immigration policies and workable border solutions.
A version of this column appeared in The Week.