President Donald Trump might or might not get a wall. Either way, we have a problem at the border, best spelled out by The Atlantic's David Frum.
The Atlantic, the grayest among Gray Lady cultural journals, often serves as the wise arbiter between extremism on the right and left.
Frum is a citizen immigrant, a Harvard Law School and Yale graduate and a former speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush. He supports neither the hyperbolic warning of a border crisis nor the naive pretense we have no issue to solve.
"There is a real immigration problem on the border," Frum says in his Atlantic article published Jan. 8. "Central American migrants have figured out that by showing up at the border in family units, they will be admitted into the country pending the adjudication of an asylum claim. The asylum system is overwhelmed, adjudications take months or years — and long before then, the would-be migrants can vanish into the U.S. labor market. Few Central Americans prevail in their asylum claims. Almost all end up staying, anyway."
The U.S. has no cap on the number of asylum-seekers it will approve during a given year.
To obtain legal asylum, refugees must prove they face assured persecution at home on a basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or association with a social group. Poverty is not a qualifying condition.
Those standards, and the thresholds of proof, are not policies enacted in isolation by the United States. They are dictates of the United Nations' 1951 multilateral treaty known as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 protocol.
Toward better enforcement of federal and international immigration policies, President Bill Clinton approved construction of 580 miles of border fence when he signed Operations Safeguard and Hold the Line in 1993. Back then, Democrats were arguably more hawkish than Republicans on immigration control. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, had signed an amnesty bill in 1986 and declared that Latin Americans "are Republicans. They just don't know it yet."
More border barriers came in 2006, when congressional Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly approved the Secure Fence Act to add hundreds of miles of fencing at a cost of $1.4 billion and more than $1 billion a year in additional maintenance costs.
The Clinton-initiated border barriers assist in guarding more than one-third of the border. They protect our more vulnerable urban points of entry and reduce the open terrain our border agents try to control by surveillance. The Border Patrol agency enforces open stretches with sensors, cameras, drones and standard visual observation.
Strategically adding more steel walls could channel asylum seekers and other immigrants into smaller, more easily regulated points of entry. It won't be of much use if we cannot uphold our obligation to give migrants the fair hearings they are guaranteed by federal law and multinational asylum standards the United States long ago agreed to.
"The solution is to get more adjudicators into the asylum system now," Frum argues. "If cases are resolved fast, and border-crossers removed promptly, the surge of asylum seekers will abate, as it abated in 2015 after the Barack Obama administration cracked down on the 2014 Central American border surge."
If the private sector ran immigration as a business, management would study problems and pursue the most cost-effective solutions. A private-sector board of directors, unlike the legislative branch of government, would care only about results. In studying the issue, they would learn of the adjudication shortfall. They would solve that first, because additional staffing comes easier, faster and cheaper than years of design and construction of barriers — assuming we need them.
Trump wants $5 billion to extend barriers. If adding a border judge costs $100,000, we could hire 1,000 of them for $100 million a year. By beefing up border adjudication, we could vet aspiring immigrants within hours or days instead of months or years. We could stop turning them loose in our country without first determining their qualifications for being here.
Through a more robust, fair and efficient legal process, the U.S. would accept those who qualify and send others away. It would be the norm, not today's exception. In doing so, we would tell Latin Americans our system is no longer broken and will not admit all comers by default. We could properly manage border immigration, to our cultural and economic benefit.
Adequate border adjudication would stop the caravans, reducing the number of miles of wall needed and therefore the cost. Trump, Democrats and Republican leadership should make a deal to better manage the system we have, adding walls as border enforcers to determine if we need them. At the very least, this would be a good start with immediate results.
REPRINTED FROM THE COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE