A Road Map for a Successful Immigration Enforcement System at the U.S.-Mexico Border
WASHINGTON — The immigration enforcement regime at the U.S.-Mexico border offers a vivid example of how existing policies, laws and resource investments are markedly out of step with new migration realities and future needs. A border enforcement system designed to address the once-dominant flows of single adults from Mexico seeking to enter the United States illegally for work is ill prepared to deal with today’s more complex mixed flows of families and unaccompanied children from Central America, some seeking humanitarian protection, others opportunity.
Consistent with its world view of immigration as threat, the Trump administration has responded by shutting down any meaningful access to humanitarian protection and asylum in the United States, by invoking a public health authority to expel more than 205,000 arrivals during the COVID-19 pandemic and by constructing hundreds of miles of border barriers. Yet these strategies cannot succeed over the long term, nor are they consistent with U.S. law and international agreements and principles on protection.
In a new brief from the Migration Policy Institute’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative, Senior Fellow and former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Doris Meissner offers a road map for a more effective approach.
“Migration pressures at the U.S.-Mexico border are inevitable, given geography and decades-long close economic and social ties with countries to the immediate south of the United States that are struggling with poverty, wars or weak governance,” she writes. “Thus, border security should be treated as a continuing management challenge and responsibility, rather than a once-and-for-all crusade to seal the border.”
The goal, she argues, must be effectively managing the border, by enabling safe, legal and orderly flows of people and goods while also combating criminal activity; deterring illegal crossings; ensuring that pertinent U.S. laws—such as asylum—are properly administered; coordinating with intra-agency, interagency, intergovernmental and international partners; and upholding high standards of professionalism and accountability.
The task of effective border management cannot fall to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its component U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) alone, Meissner writes. A successful approach also must work hand in hand with other functions to fashion an effective system: political asylum adjudications, immigration court proceedings, migrant custody and cooperation with Mexico and neighbor countries that are the principal sources of today’s illegal flows.
In the brief, Rethinking the U.S.-Mexico Border Immigration Enforcement System: A Policy Road Map, Meissner outlines a number of MPI policy recommendations, including:
- The need to create a network of reception centers and facilities at or near the border, staffed by multiple federal and non-profit agencies, to ensure one-stop screening of arrivals for nationality, criminality, unaccompanied minor status, asylum seeking, expedited removal and other characteristics. Such screening would then enable referral and handover to the appropriate agencies and procedures.
- Improving the timeliness and fairness of the asylum process and relieving pressure on the overburdened immigration courts system by allowing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers who already handle initial interviews for protection to complete the full adjudication, with the courts serving as a review body in cases where asylum denials may be appealed.
- Greater use of alternatives to detention, given their ability to ensure compliance by asylum seekers and other migrants in the removal process and to minimize detention, given serious concerns regarding conditions in private, for-profit prison facilities.
- Rethinking immigration governance within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to strengthen leadership and coordination mechanisms, both intra-DHS and interagency, so that the immigration component agencies work in concert and function as elements of immigration as a system.
“MPI’s policy road map for managing border enforcement as a cross-agency and cross-governmental system would put changes into place that marry effective border security with fair, humane enforcement,” the brief concludes. “This will be especially important if a new administration comes into office with the inevitable appetite for unwinding today’s shutdown of border and asylum processes in ways that could ignite new flows absent better responses from those used in the past.”
The road map is the latest in the multi-year Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative, launched in 2019. The initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. Reports focusing on the immigration detention system, the attorney general’s referral and review powers, regional migration flows and management, the immigration courts and a wide range of other topics will be published in the coming weeks and months.
Read the border enforcement road map here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/rethinking-us-mexico-border-immigration-enforcement.
See all of the work published to date by the Rethinking Immigration Initiative here: www.migrationpolicy.org/rethinking. And to keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.