SALT LAKE CITY — The number of migrants apprehended at the border in March totaled more than 103,000 — the highest number in more than a decade.
Now the Trump administration is floating new plans to stop the flow of migrants, including a revised version of the controversial zero-tolerance policy that resulted in separating migrant families at the border earlier this year.
Called the “binary choice” proposal, it would give migrant parents a choice: have their children separated from them and later released to live with a relative or sponsor in the United States, or the family could stay together in detention until their day in immigration court.
The White House is looking at other options as well, including ramped-up deportations of illegal immigrants already living in the United States, and implementing a stricter screening process for asylum seekers.
But are Trump’s new plans a realistic answer to America’s border crisis, or are they merely more fodder for controversy and court battles?
To find out, the Deseret News talked to immigration experts, policymakers and academics to get their takes on the primary problems fueling the border crisis, and their recommendations for realistic solutions.
Problem 1: “Loopholes” in U.S. asylum law create a "strong incentive for people to come"
The current border crisis can be blamed on "loopholes in our asylum system ... that create a strong incentive for people to come," says Matt Sussis, assistant director of communications at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that favors low immigration numbers.
In order to claim asylum, migrants must be able to prove a legitimate fear of persecution in their home country. Sussis says that standard is not strict enough.
“While there are some people who really do deserve asylum ... it’s very easy to make a claim just because you want to get into the country,” says Sussis.
Other experts disagree, such as Layla Razavi, policy director for the California Immigrant Policy Center, who emphasizes that migrants have a legal right under federal and international law to enter the country and seek asylum.
"This is a founding principle not just of American jurisprudence, but also our social fabric," she said. "It’s really baked into our idea of who we are as a people."
The issue may not be the law itself, but its failed implementation, according to Rachel Schmidtke, program associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
A lack of immigration judges to hear asylum cases at the border has created a backlog that often means migrants who have claimed asylum don’t see a courtroom for two years after they were first apprehended at the border.
“I think people see (claiming asylum at the border) as a viable option to enter the United States, and so they’re doing so," said Schmidtke. "That's increasing the number of people waiting, and it’s turning into a very dire humanitarian situation at the border.”
Solution: Hire more immigration judges to process claims quicker
Congress should amend the loopholes in the asylum law, according to Sussis, to make it more difficult to claim asylum in the first place. But given the divided nature of Congress, a legislative amendment may not be the way to go, he says.
A better option, he says, would be to focus on appointing more immigration judges to process asylum claims at the border to end the backlog.
“In this scenario, the system would still protect people with legitimate claims, of whom there are many, while people with illegitimate claims could be turned away. You could still keep families together and both kids and their parents would be processed much more quickly,” he said.
Problem 2: Violence is pushing migrants out of Central America
The primary problem fueling the border crisis can be found not in U.S. law or policy, but in Central America, where the "dire" conditions of poverty and violence are driving migrants to flee, says Angela S. García, assistant professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
“It’s foolhardy thinking that people are being drawn to the United States because of a robust social safety net, or because of potential for U.S immigration reform,” she says. “It’s about crime and violence driving people out.”
According to Schmidtke, this explains the higher rates of women and children coming to the border fleeing violence. In November, more than 25,000 families turned themselves in, a historic high.
Garcia says an interesting case study is to look at Nicaragua, which is the second poorest country in the region. She says that despite widespread poverty, migrants are leaving Nicaragua in far fewer numbers because the homicide rate is lower there.
"What you can see clearly is that there's much higher rates of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and that's clearly linked to greater number of people fleeing," she explained. "(These migrants are not) leaving home because of fun or adventure."
Solution: Give U.S. aid to Central America focusing on improving quality of life
Garcia says the answer is to change the way the United States focuses on giving aid to Central American countries.
Trump has threatened in recent weeks to do away with aid to Central America, which Garcia says would only exacerbate the problems at hand.
But she says even the current way the United States gives aid often focuses on the wrong issues, primarily providing money earmarked for security or policing, rather than for food, education or health care.
Given a limited amount of money and political will, she says U.S. aid would be best spent by investing in improvements to the quality of life of everyday people in Central America.
Problem 3: Asylum-seekers are treated "like prisoners" — at a high cost to the taxpayer
The key issue fueling the border crisis is a lack of solid infrastructure to process and integrate asylum-seekers, says Razavi with the California Immigrant Policy Center.
She says the United States has a sophisticated infrastructure for admitting and integrating refugees through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, which provides refugees language education, job training and help with housing.
She says there is no real distinction between a migrant and an asylum-seeker, in that both groups are usually fleeing due to political instability and/or fear of persecution.
“On the refugee side, we have an entire system and framework in place to ensure their successful integration," she said. "But on the asylum side, we lock these people up in prisons and treat them like they are criminals. I think that’s problematic morally — but it costs a lot of money to the taxpayer too.”
According to ICE’s fiscal year 2018 budget, on average it costs $133.99 a day to maintain one adult detention bed, but immigration groups have put that number closer to $200 a day.
The cost of a family bed, which keeps mothers and children together, is around $319 a day, according to DHS.
Beds for children separated from their parents cost $775 per person per night, HHS told NBC News.
Solution: Treat migrants as refugees
Razavi says a solution to this problem would be to expand the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program to provide services to asylum-seekers as well as refugees.
A similar idea was put forth by Jodi Ziesemer, supervising attorney for the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Community Services, in The Guardian in August 2018.
"Refugee resettlement agencies are well-equipped to provide support to traumatized families," wrote Ziesemer. "Studies have shown that within a short period of time, refugees are not only able to support themselves but also more than reimburse the money they receive in support during their first few years in the U.S. through taxes and generation of income and jobs."
Razavi says in the current political climate, such a policy shift would be a challenging endeavour, as the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the United States has created serious funding cuts to agencies across the country.
Razavi says even so, states could play a powerful role in supporting local resettlement agencies to give them the capacity to offer such services to refugees and asylum-seekers alike.
“This is both from a humanitarian perspective and for the benefit of American taxpayers," said Razavi. "We’re pouring a lot of money into locking up migrants when we could actually be spending a lot less to make sure they’re getting off on the right foot to be successful here."