Democrats say their plan to stop migrant caravans overrunning the U.S. border is not to stiffen immigration laws here, but rather to do some nation-building in Central America.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat on the bipartisan committee working on a border security spending deal, said the focus needs to be on making Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala countries where people want to stay.
“I think you have to solve the problem there to keep them there,” he said. “I think that would be the best use of money and the right thing to do.”
Democrats have not put a price tag on the plan, but insist it’s cheaper — and less offensive to southern neighbors — than Mr. Trump’s border wall.
The thousands of people marching in caravans to the U.S. have become a powerful symbol in the border security debate, though each side has starkly different views of the migrants.
The latest caravan, with some 2,000 people, arrived on the border south of Texas this week, riding in buses provided by Mexico.
President Trump sees them as an invading army, bringing crime and disorder.
The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that troops have been moved to Eagle Pass, Texas, to counter the threat posed by the caravan.
About 250 active-duty troops were repositioned, officials said. They include military police, medical personnel and engineers.
Congressional Democrats and their immigrant rights allies describe caravan members as refugees from violence, drug gangs and government corruption in Central America.
“You can’t stop them,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat leader. “What, [with] military intervention?”
He said U.S. law guarantees the immigrants the chance to request asylum and said the president’s plans would trample that.
“They have the right to do that. Now the system is so backed up and it is going to take a long time for any resolution of their status but they have the right under the law to present themselves,” Mr. Durbin said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow called it a “complicated issue.”
“We need to focus on stopping violence in their country so they don’t feel the need to come,” the Michigan Democrat said.
Mr. Trump says the U.S. has given too much assistance — which has been wasted — to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“We’re looking very seriously at taking away all funding,” he said. “It’s a disgrace what’s going on in those countries. For years and years, the United States has paid them hundreds of millions of dollars, and they do nothing for us.”
Not only does he want to build border walls, but he also has called for changes to make it easier to detain and deport illegal immigrants and to reject bogus asylum claims.
The rules for earning asylum are relatively strict. Refugees must prove they are fleeing persecution in their home country and are being victimized because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or as a member of a particular social group.
But claiming asylum is easy, requiring the person who jumped the border to say that he fears being returned to his home country. By now, many migrants making the journey have been coached on the “magic words” to say
About one in five will win their asylum case. But that doesn’t mean the others are leaving.
In fiscal 2017, border authorities nabbed nearly 95,000 people traveling as families who tried to enter the U.S. without permission. A year later, only a little more than 1 percent of them had been deported.
Mr. Trump’s threat to end U.S. aid does not appear to have traction in Congress.
Honduras, the starting point for recent caravans, received $181 million in U.S. aid in 2017, the most recent complete data available from federal agencies. That’s down from $287 million in 2016.
El Salvador got $118 million in 2017, up from $75 million in 2016 but much less than $332 million in 2015.
Guatemala received $257 million in 2017, down slightly from $297 million in 2016.
The aid payments that go to agriculture, counter-drug operations, education and human rights programs are part of a long history of U.S. involvement in Central America.
Georgetown University national security professor Christopher Swift said there is merit in nation building in Central America, but it won’t be easy.
“We’ve screwed it up so many times down there that it is hard to know how to do it,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things that haven’t worked [but] you have to take away the source of what threatens people and those things are gangs, drugs and corrupt officials.”
Mr. Swift, who is also a lawyer, has first-hand experience with the forces that create refugees. He represented El Salvadoran asylum seekers who were fleeing the MS-13 gang.
He, nevertheless, said nation building wasn’t a substitute for border security and more effective immigration laws.
“It’s not either-or,” he said. “In the near term we have to be concerned about border security as well. But as long as we’re focused on a wall, on these simple superficial things on both the left and the right, we will never get things right in Central America.”