1,734,686 – this is the number of migrants apprehended at our southern border in FY2021 (October 2020 through September 2021). At the same time in 2019 – when the Trump administration was facing a border crisis – there had only been 977,509 apprehensions.
2020 saw a mere 458,088 apprehensions. In other words, the number of migrants coming to the United States has almost quadrupled since President (then-candidate) Joe Biden announced he would provide a clear road map to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.
Unfortunately, more humans smuggled illegally through the southern border means more money in the pockets of the cartels, more migrant deaths, and more opportunities for kidnapping and abuse. If 2019 was a crisis, 2021 has been a catastrophe.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Asylum-seekers should be required to use the front door.
For over 40 years, our laws have allowed asylum-seekers to ford the river, climb over the fence, or traverse the desert and then make an asylum claim. Although our nation has front doors (they are called ports of entry), asylum-seekers are not required to use them. This law no longer reflects the practical realities our country – and the immigrants coming to it – face today.
There was a time in our nation’s history when we might have been rightfully concerned that an asylum-seeker traveling on foot would not be able to find a port of entry, but that concern is no longer founded. Migrants now receive step-by-step directions to specific locations at the southern border through text messaging and social media communication. Requiring them to use the front door is no longer a burdensome ask.
The Biden-Harris administration seems to have reached a similar conclusion. Faced with the daunting task of processing and detaining 1,266 migrants per day who have crossed between ports of entry (or more than 4,500 per day if you include those being expelled under Title 42), they are now seeking ways to motivate migrants to present themselves for inspection at ports of entry rather than crossing illegally.
The obvious benefit of steering asylum-seekers to ports of entry is that it frees up the Border Patrol to focus on catching bad actors trying to enter the country. Once any incentive for good people to cross the border illegally has been removed, the only migrants crossing the border at a location other than a port of entry would be those who would not otherwise be eligible for lawful entry.
The result would be that convicted felons and terrorists would no longer be able to hide in the crowds. Border Patrol would be relieved of doing humanitarian aid work and could focus instead on keeping our country safe.
Migrants coming from countries other than Mexico or Canada should be required to apply for refugee status.
The only problem with diverting all asylum-seekers to ports of entry is that immigration officials at ports do not currently have the capacity to swiftly process such a high volume of asylum claims every day. The Trump administration solved this problem by implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” program. The downside, of course, was that conditions in migrant camps were not always humane. The current Administration has instead sought to solve the problem by allowing asylum-seekers in without proper vetting. Take, for example, the 24-year-old Honduran immigrant who was allowed into the country as an unaccompanied minor after falsely claiming to be 17. He killed a father of four in Florida a few months later.
A third option would require any immigrant traveling from farther afield than Mexico or Canada to apply for admission to the United States as a refugee before making the trip to this country. A refugee is simply an immigrant who has fled their home country and is applying for status from a safe third country. If a refugee’s application is approved, they receive safe passage to the United States.
Consider the flood of more than 15,000 Haitian migrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande River and sheltered under the Del Rio Bridge. The vast majority of those migrants had been living safely in Brazil or Chile for many years. They could have applied for refugee status from their safe third country. Instead, they were incentivized to make the extremely dangerous trek north, and many died along the way. These immigrants would not have made the journey if they knew that applying as a refugee was their only option for gaining entry into the United States.
Immigrants are traveling from all over the world to get to this country. If they fit the criteria to be refugees, we need to meet them where they are rather than encouraging them to fund cartels and subject themselves to unspeakable horrors to get here.
Fortunately, there is an app for that. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) already has an app that allows immigrants “to securely submit certain biographic and biometric information before arrival” in the United States. CBP could expand this platform to enable refugees to apply for admission from anywhere in the world.
We need reform.
Americans are tired of seeing a humanitarian crisis at their southern border. Both political parties know that immigration reform is necessary. It’s time for Congress to act.
• Lacy Cooper was the Border Security Section Chief for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. She served 15 years as a county and federal prosecutor targeting violent offenders, gang members, cartels, and terrorists. She is now Of Counsel with the law firm of Schmitt Schneck Even & Williams. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.