Mario Gonzalez remembers well the Christmas trips his family would take from their Fresno County home to visit relatives living in Mexico.
“We would pack up the van and go,” Gonzalez said of his parents and siblings. They’d join in a caravan with up to 15 other families and drive south to Tijuana and through to the state of Jalisco. It was the kind of trip Mexican Americans and immigrants from throughout the Central Valley and Central Coast have made for decades.
A caravan of a different sort has complicated matters at the border this year. Thousands of people from Central America have made their way to the port of entry at San Ysidro, just south of San Diego, fleeing crime and poverty in their home countries and hoping to gain refuge in America. In response, President Trump ordered the U.S. military to the border, and has used the thousands of troops to fortify the line dividing California from Mexico with rolls of razor wire.
The president has a legitimate concern about keeping the border safe. But the best way to do that is not with razor wire, American troops or a giant, multibillion-dollar wall. Ultimate safety will be achieved by processing asylum claims, aka credible-fear claims, quickly, and determining who has a fair reason to enter America.
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While the military just decided to return about half of its 5,200 troops from the border to their home bases, it is little comfort to those in the caravan still waiting and hoping. Nor does the pullback have any impact on the huge backlog of cases the government must review. An estimated 700,000 claims are outstanding, an all-time high.
Reducing a big backlog of claims has been done before. In the mid-1990s, the federal government faced a mountain of asylum requests. Doris Meissner, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, writes in a Migration Policy Institute column that reforms were undertaken to handle claims faster and more fairly. As a result, there was a reduction in dubious claims, and approval rates went up while the backlog was reduced.
One simple way to handle the current caravan, and any that follow in the future, is to empower initial screening officers at the border — known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers — with the authority to decide requests immediately. That would free up immigration court judges who could work on the current cases.
Another improvement would be to establish more immigration courts at the border. Currently, courts are located in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Imperial.
New courts would cost money. But a report to Congress last month told lawmakers the military deployment to the border would require $210 million. So funding does not seem to be an obstacle.
Gonzalez is now 33 years old and is a program director for Centro La Familia, a Fresno-based organization that advocates for immigrants. Getting through San Ysidro this Christmas would be so difficult that he advises clients to head east to a different entry point. It will make travel more difficult, he admits, but it is better than getting bogged down at San Ysidro.
As for Trump’s decision to use the military, Gonzalez wishes the president had instead chosen to hire more legal staff to process the “credible fear” claims the people in the caravan will make.
“The immigrant caravan is not a threat in a way that the military would need to respond,” he says. “It is there mostly as a show of power.”
President Trump likes to say his proposed border wall will be beautiful. But instead of steel and concrete, the president could use his political capital to help immigrant families fleeing bad conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Like European and Asian peoples before them, those refugees would be forever grateful for the chance to become Americans. And that would be the most beautiful thing imaginable.