The numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border from Central America’s Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have increased sharply over the last year, due to crime and gang violence, domestic abuse, government institutions unable to respond effectively and humanely, and persistent problems of poverty and climate change that make it almost impossible for many families to survive in their home communities.
These are long-term problems that must be addressed through both Central American and international efforts. In recent years, the U.S. government had begun to turn its attention to how to strengthen democratic governance in the Northern Triangle, a crucial step towards addressing the root causes that drive migration. There are also many sensible and humane options to address the border’s ongoing humanitarian crisis in the short term. These include expanding short-term holding capacity to process migrants and asylum seekers in a humane and timely manner, and not forcing children into squalid and unhygienic conditions.
However, rather than deepening efforts to invest in anti-corruption and good governance reforms in the Northern Triangle, or pursuing policies and programs that would make the U.S. asylum and migration system more adept at humanely processing families, the Trump administration has cut assistance and tried to deter the flow of migrants and asylum seekers through a series of harsh measures. These include family separation, detention under inhumane conditions, forcing asylum seekers to wait weeks or months in dangerous Mexican border towns through metering access to the ports of entry, and now the “Remain in Mexico” program, which sends asylum seekers back to Mexico while they wait for their immigration hearings in the United States.
All of these measures are intended to make conditions so difficult that asylum seekers give up on exercising their right to pursue a safe, dignified, and productive life for themselves and their families. The Trump administration’s punitive approach seeks to deter migrants and asylum seekers despite the fact that many are fleeing horrific violence and persecution that puts their lives at risk, as well as crippling poverty in their home countries. The administration also aims to impede the efforts of families trying to reunite children with their parents in the United States.
Now, on top of these prior restrictive, dangerous, and trauma-inducing policies, the Trump administration is threatening mass raids to detain and deport asylum seekers in the United States who have outstanding deportation orders.
President Trump has talked publicly about raids that would round up thousands of people in several cities. These raids would divide families, leave U.S. citizen children without parents or caregivers, and sweep up bystanders. Such raids are not meant to make the U.S. asylum system function more efficiently or humanely—they are meant to frighten and deter migrants and asylum seekers through harsh treatment. They are an ugly political show meant to inspire terror by breaking up families and will do nothing to fix our broken immigration and asylum system.
All of these policies are at odds with the values of compassion and humane treatment that has characterized the best of the United States. As a country, we are capable of managing and absorbing the immediate flow of Central American migrants in ways that are sensible and consistent with our values. That’s why so many citizens have resisted President Trump’s anti-immigrant proposals. It’s why we’ve seen so much public outrage at the abuses reported at the border, and it’s why Congress and the courts have pushed back against the most egregious of the president’s initiatives.
As the president has once again raised the spectre of mass raids and detentions, and as interior enforcement continues to separate immigrant families in the country, there’s been a renewed call for churches, congregations, and community groups to respond by protecting and defending migrants, and by declaring sanctuary. Such efforts deserve widespread support, as the Trump administration continues to double down on its hateful, anti-migrant agenda.
Policymakers in the administration and Congress need to pursue a more humane and sensible migration and asylum system, rather than a narrow-minded, hateful approach focused on deterrence and deportation. As long as threats and abuses continue, they will generate opposition, and sanctuary initiatives and other forms of resistance will continue.