Jim de Bree: Criminalizing Immigration Has Failed

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree
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On June 24, the Signal published an editorial that rightfully says people who come to the United States illegally are responsible for bearing the consequences of their actions. It also correctly articulates that, once asylum seekers come here, we bear substantial costs taking care of them.

Over the past 20 years, the incentives for illegal immigration have shifted from largely economic issues to matters of safety. NAFTA and a changed U.S. economy have reduced the financial incentives for the historically largest group of illegal immigrants, those from Mexico, to move to the U.S. However, violence and crime have largely replaced economic factors in motivating Central Americans to come to our borders.

Although we correctly ascertained that removing the economic incentives for immigration helped stem the previous illegal immigration tide, we have yet to develop an effective plan to ameliorate the problems driving current illegal immigration. The current situation is more complex. Economic problems that historically drove illegal immigration generally do not justify asylum, but escaping violence may be another story. That makes it more costly to determine the legitimacy of immigrants’ legal status.

The Obama Administration commenced a four-prong approach to deter Central American immigration: (i) assisting Mexico in securing its southern border, (ii) expediting the removal of certain immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S., (iii) carrying out raids to remove illegal residents, and (iv) most importantly, publicizing in Central America the risks of attempting immigration.

The Trump Administration has continued and enhanced these policies. Yet Central American immigration continues. When daughters are raped, sons are conscripted into gangs and family members are murdered, the American asylum process looks like a good alternative. Obviously, adults who bring their children are aware of the risks of family separation, but given the alternatives, they are willing to take their chances anyway.

In a report published in February 2016, the American Immigration Council (AIC) concluded that the dramatic increase of violence and criminal activity has propelled immigration. For example, per capita murder rates in Honduras are 10 times greater than in the U.S. Guatemala and El Salvador are not far behind.

According to a Vanderbilt University study, victims of crimes — particularly families victimized more than once — are more likely to consider it worth taking the risk to seek asylum in the U.S. From 2007 to 2017 Central Americans seeking asylum in the US increased by 1,700 percent.

In an effort to deter Central American immigration, the Obama administration began detaining asylum seekers. Some, but not all, asylum seekers have the right to a hearing after being detained for six months.

Detained asylum seekers are less likely to be represented by counsel. Those without counsel are unlikely to seek an asylum hearing or to be granted asylum. Instead, they wait in line to face a deportation hearing.

According to AIC, as of March 2018, approximately 318,000 asylum applications were pending and 690,000 deportation cases involving asylum seekers were working their way through the courts. The average defendant in a deportation case has waited nearly two years to have their case heard.

All this time, our government is housing and feeding these people. We are spending untold billions on this process — enriching government contractors.

The problem of illegal immigration is a disease. Instead of curing the ailment, we are merely treating its symptoms. Clearly, criminalizing the actions by those seeking asylum has not worked.

Increasing the costs of the alternatives faced by Honduran citizens is not a recipe for making the problems go away. Instead, it will likely lead to further political instability south of our border, which ultimately may make things worse for everyone — including us.

The Obama Administration failed to devise a solution to the problem and, to use The Signal’s editorial board’s terminology, President Trump’s “ham-handed, clumsy approach” has further complicated matters.

The four-pronged strategy of deterrence is not working. The separation of families is inhumane, increases the families’ suffering and gives the Trump administration a black eye. This is not America’s finest hour.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations (and their opposition parties) have failed to devise a workable solution. Rather than finding a viable approach, most of the apparent effort has been undertaken to rally each party’s political base. This is expensive for U.S. taxpayers and fails to eliminate the problem.

Just as a doctor administers antibiotics to cure a disease, we need to re-evaluate immigration’s underlying causes and determine how to heal the wounds that fester crime and violence in Central America. The World Bank has made recommendations for improving the Honduran economy.

Given what we are spending housing Honduran immigrants, it would probably be more cost effective if we led the world in improving conditions in Honduras so its citizens would not flee.

Until we do so, we can expect to see continued waves of asylum seekers at our borders.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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