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A Different Immigration Approach: Less Detention, More Capacity

For many folks in the United States, camping elicits fond memories of idyllic summer nights roasting marshmallows and swapping ghost stories under a star-spangled sky. This starkly contrasts with the experience of thousands of asylum-seekers just south of the U.S. border with Mexico. Memories of these camps, of gnawing hunger, rampaging disease, and agonizing fear of predation, will haunt migrants for the rest of their lives.

The Trump administration has condemned some sixty thousand migrants to these derelict camps as their asylum claims are processed in the U.S. This reactive policy seeks to prevent asylum-seekers from entering the U.S., skipping their court date, and joining the ranks of unauthorized immigrants. It is part of the administration’s broader focus on preventing migration through stronger enforcement measures. This is the wrong approach.

Migrants are economically and socially useful. Whether highly skilled or not, they add value by plugging a labor gap neglected by the domestic market. Migrants do not steal jobs from Americans. They fill vacancies prescribed by market wages. Labor market competition is great for the American consumer; they get better products and services for lower prices. To be clear, there is a contingent of American labor that competes with migrant labor. This subset should not be neglected by policymakers. But the economic benefits that accrue to American consumers outweigh the costs borne by displaced American labor—costs that should be borne by the state. The groups that benefit most from this expensive, heavy enforcement approach are gangs, traffickers, and other bad actors that profit off this vulnerable population. Migrants are an asset with incredible economic and societal potential. They should be productively utilized, not terrorized at the taxpayer’s expense.

The Biden administration should focus less on ineffective deterrence and more on capacity building. America’s immigration infrastructure was designed for yesterday’s flows of adult men looking for work, not today’s flows of families seeking asylum. Asylum seekers are entitled to a fair hearing and sanctuary while they prove their plight. The incoming administration should not neglect the rights of this vulnerable population. It would be both more humane and cost-effective to redesign this infrastructure to better accommodate these flows. While the asylum process is complex, it need not take years. More judges, interpreters, and processors are needed to cope with higher volumes as are larger, better-staffed reception facilities. Investment in asylum processing capacity will facilitate speedier case resolution and integration. This will pay long-term dividends to migrants and citizens alike.

Despite capacity development, there will inevitably be a waiting period. Case management, or supervised release, provides a more humane and cheaper alternative to detention while claimants wait for their day in court. This is particularly important given the compositional shift to more family units and the trauma caused by long-term detention. Effective case management requires a system of monitoring and supervision, with frequent check-ins for case updates and confirmation of court attendance. ICE piloted a successful program during the Obama administration, the Family Case Management Program, that reported excellent compliance rates with court hearings at significantly lower costs than detention. Importantly, compliance rates with removals of ineligible claimants were similarly high. It is critical that ICE maintains removal rates under a supervised release program as this deters ineligible claims and the so-called asylum loophole. Migrants that do not meet asylum criteria should be humanely returned home where they can pursue the legal migration path. Faster processing and effective case management will save taxpayer’s money, eliminate long-term damage from detention, and improve compliance rates with court dates and removals.

The Biden administration should coordinate returns with receiving countries so that returnees can be effectively reintegrated. This coordination should facilitate a broader partnership with regional governments to address endemic poverty, corruption, and insecurity. Migrants will continue to flock north regardless of the enforcement methods and harsh conditions of the journey. This is because conditions in their home communities are worse. For many, staying is more dangerous than migrating. The pandemic and two devastating hurricanes will only make matters worse. Collectively addressing poverty, insecurity, and poor governance in the region remains the only viable, long-term solution to Central American emigration.

Some will ask why the Biden administration should act on immigration reform when it has so many competing priorities. The administration should act on immigration reform now because the southern border is quiet. The politics of reform will only get more intractable as the border situation deteriorates with the inevitable increase in post-pandemic flows. As politically unpalatable as reform may seem, delay will result in reactive, expedient, and easily reversible policy later when the administration is politically handcuffed by deteriorating border conditions. This humanitarian catastrophe is avoidable. Now is the time to act.

The Biden administration can atone for past policy missteps by updating America’s immigration infrastructure to better accommodate asylum seekers, not inhumanely deter them. Long-term deterrence will only come by addressing the underlying push factors at play. While the pandemic has unquestionably walloped the region, it has also paused migration. The Biden administration should use this reprieve to build capacity, develop case management, and reengage with the region. Only by reforming its immigration practices can America live up to its lofty, Latin motto—“E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one). The Biden administration should be thoughtful. It should be practical. And just maybe, with a pinch of political courage, it can build a better America.