Biden’s Border Strategies Won’t Work

The president’s approach to the migrant crisis increasingly looks like the EU’s failed policies.

Migrants walk along the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 17.
Migrants walk along the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 17. John Moore/Getty Images

Joe Biden began his presidency this year with a slew of migration and asylum-related executive orders that promised a welcome change from the policies of the previous administration. But confronted with his first challenge at the border—an uptick in asylum-seekers from Central America, which news media has been quick to brand a “crisis”—Biden’s team is resorting to tactics taken straight from the European Union’s failed playbook.

In January, there were 75,000 individuals apprehended while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the highest for that month since 2006. Biden, fearing that opening the border entirely would lead to further arrivals, decided to keep in place former U.S. President Donald Trump’s invocation of Title 42, which uses the pandemic to immediately expel adult asylum seekers and families found crossing the border to Mexico. Unaccompanied minors have been permitted to cross though, leading to a sharp increase in the number of children stuck in border patrol stations while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services attempts to find beds for them in its shelters.

The administration has urged patience as it attempts to manage the situation, assuring U.S. citizens that it is taking steps to improve an asylum infrastructure that was dealt numerous blows under the Trump administration. Some patience here is warranted, but more worrying is the Biden administration’s touting of medium- to long-term policies that closely resemble strategies used by the EU when it confronted its own escalation of refugee arrivals starting in 2011.

Although different in size and scope, the 2015 European refugee “crisis” and the EU’s subsequent response can provide valuable lessons for Biden. In August 2015, during the height of asylum seeker arrivals and following the global circulation of photos of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child whose body washed ashore in Turkey, most countries temporarily agreed that migration should be managed with greater global cooperation and with a more human-centered approach. They formulated plans for the Global Compact for Migration, which came to fruition in 2018 and promised that refugees arriving in Europe would be permitted to stay.

But Europe’s momentary sympathy quickly faded, and rather than greater responsibility and burden-sharing, European states turned to increasingly far-fetched solutions to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers within their borders. Those ultimately led to containment policies that trapped asylum seekers and refugees in squalid conditions on Greek islands or in informal and untenable situations in developing countries, such as Lebanon, Libya, and Turkey.

Among the failed gambits, the EU has signed numerous partnerships with Middle Eastern and African countries and directed billions of euros in the form of development aid to the two regions since 2015. The logic behind such deals is that migrants and asylum seekers will not choose to leave their home countries and embark on migratory journeys if economic circumstances there improve. Aside from the fact that a large portion of those resources has gone toward border security rather than development projects, this logic also contravenes evidence suggesting that economic and human development actually increases people’s capabilities and aspirations and therefore tends to coincide with an increase—rather than a decrease—in migration in the short to medium term. In Europe, irregular migration has never again reached the peak of 2015, but it continues steadily with approximately 150,000 individuals arriving in 2018. There is also the human cost on Europe’s hands: nearly 2,200 missing or dead individuals in the Mediterranean Sea that same year.

Biden, for his part, has touted a development approach that promises $4 billion in aid over four years to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America—including gang and gender-based violence and corruption. Although aid may have a positive impact on the lives of Central American residents, no one should expect it to provide a substitute for migration.

The Biden administration has also expressed interest in establishing systems in Mexico that would provide a way for asylum seekers to file their applications there, rather than arriving at the U.S. border first. The EU has pursued a similar approach. At a European Union leaders’ summit in 2018, EU heads of state called for the establishment of migrant processing centers—described as disembarkation platforms—in countries including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia. Instead of being permitted to remain in the EU, arriving asylum seekers would be returned to these countries where their asylum claims could be assessed.

Such processing centers—hardly different from detention facilities—are an especially worrying prospect in a state like Libya, where much of the country is under the control of militias and armed groups, who tend to see detention centers as moneymaking ventures. If Biden’s proposal for processing centers in Mexico comes to fruition, it is not clear that asylum seekers held in them would be protected from cartels or other forms of extortion, which is already a serious concern for migrants transiting through Mexico or forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border.

Another parallel between the Biden and EU responses is the Biden administration hopes to build up the capacity of countries like Mexico to host asylum seekers on its own. While Mexico implemented changes to its domestic asylum law in 2014—in principle, individuals granted refugee status can apply for residency and access employment, health care, and education—many of the reforms have yet to take shape on the ground. Simply funneling money into Mexico is unlikely to improve the system. The Middle East and North Africa are a case in point. There, in exchange for increased international assistance and development funds from Europe, host countries in the region were meant to improve formal access to education, employment, and social services for refugees. In other words, financial assistance was meant to motivate the adoption of more inclusive and welcoming asylum policies. But with not all promised funding delivered and with a lack of accountability on the ground, formal protections and services are scarce. European funding has done little to incentivize Middle East and North African host states to invest enough resources to make long-term integration for asylum seekers and refugees feasible or desirable. The best way to create a better asylum system in Mexico is to assist domestic actors—civil society organizations, in particular—in pressuring the Mexican government to improve the system from the ground up, and this kind of change takes time.

Finally, the use of development aid to convince Central American countries to host more asylum seekers in lieu of them coming to the United States runs the risk of creating perverse incentives if the United States does not follow through on its promised assistance. Since 2015, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have become better negotiators and are adept at demanding ever greater resources in exchange for hosting asylum seekers and refugees indefinitely. They have been emboldened by Europe’s fear and willingness to throw money at the situation instead of resolving its own internal political problems over the issue of asylum. There are echoes here to the United States’ own inability to address its partisan divide on the issue. In the case of Syrian refugees, meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries discovered over the last six years that they can forcibly return refugees to Syria with very few negative consequences from the international community; if European countries do not fully deliver on the money they promised, then these countries see little to lose in repatriating the very people they were supposed to protect.

Ultimately, the Biden administration must not shirk its responsibilities to asylum seekers arriving at the United States’ southern border. Pleas for patience are understandable as the administration rebuilds—and hopefully improves—the reception system that was partly dismantled under Trump. But paying Mexico and Central American countries to host and vet asylum seekers will not solve the problem. Such policies can be pursued in tandem with—but are not replacements for—more humane and better-financed reception policies at the border, in addition to other pathways for migration, such as work opportunities, student visas, and a revamping of the Central American Minors program.

The United States is a wealthy country with enough resources to follow through on its commitments to those seeking refuge there. Anything less than a fully functioning asylum system will be viewed as hypocritical to both asylum seekers and the countries south of the United States, with whom Washington wishes to partner.

Kelsey Norman is a fellow for the Middle East and director of the women’s rights, human rights, and refugees program at Rice University’s Baker Institute. She is the author of Reluctant Reception: Refugees, Migration and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa. Twitter: @kelseypnorman

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