DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

As your humble blogger reported earlier, Democrats are engaged in an internal debate over how to develop their own proactive solutions to the humanitarian crisis that is being caused by the large spike in asylum-seeking families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But what might this end up looking like?

A letter that top House Democrats sent to Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, contains an interesting clue along these lines.

The letter blasts the Trump administration for all the ways it is misfiring in response to the situation. It notes that Trump’s national emergency is an absurd response, since more barrier cannot stop asylum seekers from coming, and that Trump’s policy of cruel deterrence has been an “abysmal failure,” since many of these families are being driven by terrible civil conditions in their own countries.

And it suggests several solutions, such as adding resources to speed up the processing of arriving asylum seekers, and investments in Central American countries, along with an effort to craft a regional solution (which Trump is basically blowing up by rescinding aid to those countries).

But this is particularly noteworthy. The letter suggests the administration should be:

Establishing legal channels, including refugee processing in nearby countries and in-country processing in sending countries, so that making the perilous journey to our border is not the only option for people in need of protection.

This suggests a possible way forward. Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, tells me that some in the immigration advocacy community are increasingly convinced that Democrats need an ambitious agenda of their own in response to the current situation, which really is becoming unsustainable.

The idea would be to combine a “surge” in resources to the border itself, in the form of added asylum officers and judges to speed up processing, with an effort to get the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to create processing centers in the region, Sharry says.

This way, Central Americans “can apply for protection and resettlement from the region, rather than having to take the dangerous journey to the border,” Sharry says. Ideally, he adds, the UNHCR could mobilize other nations to “participate in an orderly refugee resettlement program that would take as many as 100,000 refugees a year.”

This would build on an approach that House Democrats offered in 2016 with the Secure the Northern Triangle Act. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who championed that bill, recently said she will soon be introducing new legislation along these lines, so this is an indication of what it might look like.

This might end up giving House Democrats something to be for as this debate unfolds. And given that current projections are that the arriving families will continue to spike, this debate isn’t going away.

“It’s a smart and necessary step for those who oppose the Trump administration’s policies to offer an affirmative agenda," Michelle Mittelstadt, the communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, tells me. “Establishing in-country processing centers would take pressure off the U.S.-Mexico border. This would represent one element of an effective, multilayered policy solution.”

That multilayered solution, Mittelstadt continues, also "must include steps to strengthen asylum adjudication and processing at the U.S. border, shore up the overloaded immigration court system and strengthen capacity at official ports of entry, among many other necessary steps.”

The core principle animating this approach would be that Democrats must coalesce behind their own agenda while not giving ground to any of the Trump administration’s proposals that would retreat on our international humanitarian commitments. Among those policies are efforts to make it much more difficult in multiple ways to apply for asylum; to force asylum seekers to wait in dangerous conditions in Mexico; and to change laws to make it easier to deport Central American children and detain families for far longer.

The Trump administration has proposed a version of in-country application for asylum, but its proposal during the government shutdown would have paired this with restrictions on applications at the border and with a cap on the number of people who can be granted asylum.

The emerging agenda among advocates and Democrats would not include any of those additional restrictive features. Thus, this agenda would not foreclose the option of applying here, and would not gut the basic values at the core of our asylum program — values in keeping with international human rights norms, which hold that when people present themselves at the border and appeal for refuge, they have the right to have their claims heard.

Separately, The Post reports that House Democrats are also considering a plan that would push back on Trump’s nixing of aid to Central American countries with “new legislation to rescind and re-appropriate money for the Central American countries, with new restrictions that could prevent Trump from diverting the money. That bill, if it passed the Senate, would probably face a veto threat from the White House.”

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro just rolled out his own agenda, which includes a “21st Century Marshall Plan for Central America,” and hopefully other candidates will follow suit. A real debate is now underway.

The political context here is that Trump obviously hopes to run in 2020 on the idea that he represents law and order at the border, while claiming that Democrats represent lawlessness and open borders. In reality, with things such as his unhinged threat to close the border, his megalomaniacal declaration of a national emergency on made-up pretenses to justify barriers that won’t address the problem, and his flights of ineffectual rage over spiking asylum seeking, Trump is the one who increasingly represents chaos at the border. Democrats will be in a stronger position to make that case if they develop a proactive agenda of their own.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s huffing and puffing at the border won’t make the migration problem disappear

Greg Sargent: Fresh signs of Trump’s unfitness have emerged. How can Democrats deal with this?

The Post’s View: Yes, there’s a problem at the border. Trump’s wall won’t fix it.