Trump Is Trying to Trap Democrats on Immigration

Here’s how they can get out of it.

People hold signs that read “Abolish I.C.E.” in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York on Feb. 15.
People hold signs that read “Abolish I.C.E.” in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York on Feb. 15. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump wants the United States’ latest refugee crisis to go on as long as possible. The solution he has proposed—clamping tariffs on Mexico until the Mexicans choke off the northward flow of Central American refuge-seekers—is so preposterously self-destructive that his own Republican Party leaders have rejected it out of hand. But actually solving the problem would eliminate the one foreign-policy question that Trump plans to wield as a wedge issue in 2020. Taking time out earlier this week from his sacred duties honoring the troops who died on D-Day, Trump blasted Democrats as “a disaster” on the issue of migration. “They want free immigration,” he said, for the nth time. “They want immigration to pour into our country.”

In making such remarks, the president is likely thinking: If such rhetoric worked in Europe, why not here? Trump knows that the 2015 refugee crisis, and the accompanying imagery of Syrians, Iraqis, and others “pouring” into Europe, elevated right-wing nationalism from a fringe cause to the rallying cry of millions. It brought Trump-like figures to power in Poland and Italy. Meanwhile, every step Trump has adopted to date, including his threat to shut the border with Mexico, has only increased the desperation of Central Americans facing gang violence and state failure at home; last month the number of migrants arrested at the southern U.S. border reached a seven-year high of 144,278. Maybe that’s the goal.

Trump wants the Democrats, like European liberals, to fall into the trap of standing for “open borders. At times they seem all too inclined to oblige him. Standard-bearers of the left have raised the slogan “Abolish ICE”—Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others have tried to wish the problem away. Frank Sharry, the head of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice, said that serious reformers like him “have been tearing our hair out, because Democrats seem to be saying, ‘There’s no crisis, the numbers at the border are at a historic low, Trump’s national emergency to take funding for the wall is unconstitutional.’”

Growing numbers of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala arriving at the U.S. borders have made that position untenable. But in public, Democratic presidential candidates, speaking to their base, still offer only the kind of long-term solutions that will do nothing to diminish the numbers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is typical. Asked at a town hall in March what she would do to control the flow of refugees, she said, “If we want to stop the problem of mommas fleeing for their lives, then let’s make a little more investment in the areas that are troubled, and let’s help people be able to stay where they are safely.”

Yet Warren, like all the other Democratic senators now running for president, has endorsed the carefully branded Central America Reform and Enforcement Act, which implicitly acknowledges the gravity of the crisis, takes several lessons from the European crisis, and offers a solution that is serious and persuasive. The bill, first rolled out in 2018 and reintroduced last month, was crafted by Sharry and other advocates, including former officials from President Barack Obama’s administration, to give the party a pragmatic response to Trump’s open-borders trap. The legislation would resume the large-scale targeted development aid programs of the Obama era, which Trump has cut, illogically—at least if you think the goal is to succeed in tamping down on immigration. It would also make major investments in humane accommodations at the border and in the expansion of the ranks of immigration judges and asylum officials.

Crucially, the bill also includes provisions that would limit the flow of refugees. It proposes that the United States work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to strengthen the capacity of Mexico and other countries in the region to grant asylum to arriving refugees. Talks between the Trump administration and Mexico are said to have broken down this month over Trump’s insistence that Mexico simply absorb all the asylees. In fact, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is prepared to increase the intake of refugees but lacks the resources to do so. The legislation would also establish safe places in the region from which U.N. officials could resettle refugees to a range of countries, including the United States.

One central lesson of the European experience post-2015 is that citizens care very much about borders and will react badly if they feel theirs are being breached. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously opened her arms to Syrian refugees, realized this only belatedly and was forced to strike an ugly deal with Turkey in March 2016 to keep refugees from crossing into Europe. Had the European Union acted in 2014 to bolster the capacity of Syria’s neighboring states to host refugees—and to establish orderly resettlement programs in the region—it might have averted the worst of the political crises that rocked member nations. The United States has the time and the ability to find an orderly solution, if only it chooses to do so.

That’s not the only lesson. Liberals tend to focus exclusively on the underlying issues, known as push factors, that lead people to flee their homelands. In this case, that means gang violence, corruption, failed governance, and climate change, which makes farming increasingly unprofitable. But pull factors offered by host countries matter, too, as Merkel discovered when Germany was overwhelmed by refugees. López Obrador made the same mistake when he spoke generously of work opportunities for migrants in Mexico, only to be inundated with applications for temporary asylum. Now Mexico is deporting far more Central Americans than it did under a conservative president last year. The humanitarian impulse, by itself, can make matters worse.

Yet that impulse can be tempered by pragmatic policy. Any such policy must begin with the right to asylum. Last year, Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general at the time, ruled that Central America’s endemic gang violence does not constitute legitimate grounds for the granting of asylum, because it is not state-sponsored. That absurd distinction would rule out Iraqi Yazidis who fled Islamic State massacres or Rwandan Tutsis who fled Hutu genocide. At the same time, many Central Americans simply want a better life, just as do many African migrants seeking to reach Europe. They are not refugees and ought not be granted asylum, although some could come legally as immigrants.

The Central America Reform and Enforcement Act lays out orderly processes for making such judgments. Right now, migrants judged to have a “credible fear” of persecution wait up to four years to receive a final hearing assessing their claim, something Trump has decried as a catch-and-release system that allows migrants to remain in the United States unfairly. The legislation would end the backlog by adding asylum officials and judges, rather than reducing their numbers, as Trump has done, and would keep track of migrants by assigning them to immigration officers in a case management system—which had begun under Obama but was terminated by Sessions. Citizens need to see that undeserving applicants are, in fact, deported, though in an orderly and humane way.

But the United States will need help. Central American victims of violence have a right to refuge but not a right to choose their place of refuge. In a system of global resettlement organized by the U.N. in Mexico and perhaps Costa Rica and Belize, South American nations, Canada, and perhaps Europe will have to join the United States in opening their doors, even though the United States would still take the lion’s share. Success is hardly guaranteed: The European effort collapsed in part because only Germany and Sweden fully committed themselves to accepting refugees. But in any case, what to do about refugees is a global problem that requires a global, and thus multilateral, solution. Of course, only a U.S. president who actually believes in multilateral solutions could devise one.

A congressional source I spoke to talked bravely about a bipartisan effort to pass the Democratic legislation. That’s not going to happen under the current president. The bill is a campaign document, to be activated in the general election whenever Trump accuses whomever he runs against of favoring open borders. Democrats have a way of getting speared by wedge issues, but candidates who championed immigration reform did well in the 2018 election. It would be a noble thing for Democrats to help themselves by offering an honest answer to a difficult question.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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