On Sunday, hundreds of Central American migrants overwhelmed federal and local Mexican police in Tijuana and rushed the U.S. border at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego in an effort to force their way into the United States. Some migrants reportedly threw rocks and attempted to break through a border fence. They were repelled only when U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas.
This is precisely what the Trump administration warned would happen—and what Democrats and liberal pundits assured us would not happen—if the migrant caravans were allowed to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Now that they have, with predictable results, the crisis is going to deepen.
An estimated 500 men, women, and children, most of them from Honduras, were involved in the chaotic scene Sunday afternoon. But thousands more have arrived in Tijuana in recent weeks with the caravans President Trump has vowed not to allow into the United States. Some 5,000 Central Americans are now being housed in cramped conditions in a Tijuana sports complex, with thousands more expected to show up in the coming weeks.
Local officials in Tijuana have complained that they have no resources to handle the growing number of migrants, who are growing restless amid reports that they will have to wait in Mexico for weeks or months (or longer) while their asylum claims are being processed.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has said it lacks the resources to process the thousands of would-be asylees now showing up to ports of entry all along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump administration had struck a deal with the incoming administration of Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador that would require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims move through U.S. courts.
Mexico’s incoming leadership later denied the report, saying it rejected any deal that would effectively establish a “safe third country” agreement barring migrants passing through Mexico from applying for asylum in the U.S. As it is, Mexico continues to allow Central Americans seeking asylum to cross through Mexico illegally en route to the United States.
In short, the situation along the border is quickly deteriorating, and what we saw on Sunday is the first of what will likely become a pattern of Central American migrants probing the border and agitating for entry in highly visible ways. In this effort, they are not alone. Among the many video clips and images posted on Twitter yesterday, it was hard to miss the presence of numerous media outlets mixed in among the crowd.
Many of those outlets are not just interested in documenting the unfolding drama but also in raising awareness of the migrants’ situation, which is indeed dire. Most of the Central Americans now pouring into Tijuana are fleeing horrifying levels of poverty and gang violence in their home countries, which are in various stages of collapse. Many migrants say they are fleeing direct threats to their life and cannot go back, whether they gain entry to the United States or not.
The problem is that very few of them will qualify for asylum under U.S. law. Consider the federal data for 2016. Out of 63,733 “defensive” asylum claims filed—defensive claims are heard by an immigration judge as opposed to “affirmative” claims that are heard in a non-courtroom setting—only 8,726 were granted, less than 14 percent.
Many Central Americans now seeking asylum know that they have almost no chance of getting it. For them, claiming asylum is simply a way to gain entry to the United States, where they can live and work while their cases wind through immigration court, a process that can take years. Others simply abscond after bring admitted on a pending asylum claim, melting into an illegal immigration underground that is estimated to exceed 12 million people.
Our Asylum System Is a Mess
The absconding is what has drawn Trump’s attention. He has characterized our asylum and immigration system as “catch and release,” and vowed to change it. Although “catch and release” is perhaps an oversimplification, our system does indeed release large numbers of illegal immigrants into the country while they wait to appear before an immigration judge.
In an attempt to determine how big of a problem absconding really is, back in August I requested asylum data going back to 2013 from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), the office that handles all immigration cases. I wanted to know the total number of asylum cases decided in absentia that ended with deportation orders relative to the total number of asylum claims. In other words, how many migrants apply for asylum but never show up to their hearing? I also wanted to know how many total immigration cases (not just asylum cases) ended with deportation orders issued in absentia.
But the data I got wasn’t conclusive. For one thing, it didn’t distinguish between defensive and affirmative asylum claims, which is important because sometimes an asylum applicant will begin with an affirmative claim, get denied, then file a defensive claim while in the midst of deportation proceedings. So federal data can’t really even tell us how many asylum applicants there are.
What the EOIR data did show, however, was that the number of asylum applications decided in absentia with deportation orders has skyrocketed in recent years, going from just 1,709 in 2014 to 4,559 in 2017 (and 3,259 in the first three months of 2018). Likewise the number of in absentia deportation orders for all immigration cases almost doubled from 2014 to 2017, and as of March 2018 was on track to more than double 2017’s total.
I shared this data with Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and asked whether he thought it shed light on the absconding problem. “The number of defensive asylum cases decided in absentia has risen in recent years,” Nowrasteh said. “Without a doubt, some people are trying to use the defensive asylum system to delay deportations to primarily Central American countries.”
But he quickly added that it’s very difficult to get clear picture of our asylum system based on government data because of the terrible and inconsistent way the government counts asylum claims, and how this lack of data transparency makes the system impenetrable.
As for the “catch and release” problem with asylum claims, he told me that what we really need are better immigration laws that make it easier for people to come here and work legally on a temporary visa as a guest worker. That would funnel some of the asylum claims into a legal economic work visa program. Ankle monitoring and case workers for asylum seekers can help, he added, “But there will always be some absconders.”
The Crisis Is Going To Get Worse
Here’s how all this relates to the mob that tried to force its way across the border on Sunday. Many progressive Democrats and increased immigration advocates, along with their allies in the media, don’t want to admit that absconding is a significant problem, or that releasing asylum seekers into the United States while they await their day in immigration court has any negative consequences for the rest of the country.
This is above all a moral argument, the purpose of which is to degrade and ultimately do away with a system of limited immigration and secure borders. That’s why it was no surprise on Sunday that Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, respond to the incident at San Ysidro with moral outrage, writing on Twitter, “Tear gas across the border against unarmed families is a new low.”
Anyone uncomfortable with spraying tear gas on children is welcome to join the coalition of the moral and the sane. We can argue about other stuff when we’ve got our country back.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) November 25, 2018
Of course, it was not a new low, let alone immoral or insane, but a justifiable exercise of the right of self-defense. Most Americans agree that charging the border en masse, throwing rocks, tearing down barriers and attempting to gain entry by force is unacceptable and must be stopped. Yet as the crisis deepens and conditions in Tijuana worsen, we will almost certainly hear accusations from the left that Trump has orchestrated this crisis on purpose, that the only motives for denying entry to these Central American migrants is racism and bigotry.
We will also hear more of the familiar rhetoric from Trump and the anti-immigration right about how we must have borders and can’t be expected to allow the world’s poor to claim asylum in our country. After Sunday’s clash at the border, Trump will have a more sympathetic audience on immigration if he doesn’t overplay his hand.
At the same time, we will likely not hear anyone, left or right, argue for what might be a long-term strategic response: aggressive intervention in Mexico and Central America to stabilize those societies and put a halt to what is becoming an ongoing mass exodus to America. We will not hear this because too few have yet to grasp the true dimensions of the crisis and the drastic measures that will be necessary to meet it.
The truth is, the crisis isn’t just in Central America, or in Mexico, or at the border. Not anymore. The crisis is here now, in America, and it’s going to get worse.