The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More of Trump’s migrant horrors just emerged. Here’s a serious Democratic response.

President Trump outside the White House on May 8. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Every time we learn about yet another horrifying Trump administration policy that’s supposed to get “tough” on the migrant crisis, it gives Democrats a big opening. Or at least it should: Democrats will have to coalesce around their own vision for dealing with the crisis, and sooner would be better than later.

That is now happening. Senate Democrats — including all those running to unseat President Trump — are set to roll out a new, multifaceted plan to tackle the crush of asylum-seeking families at the border.

The hope is that the plan will give Democrats the basis for a substantive blueprint to respond to the asylum-seeking crisis — and, more broadly, an answer to Trump’s xenophobic and nativist nationalism, a vision to contrast with his.

The president’s immigration horrors are multiplying. The Post reports that, a few weeks ago, the White House developed a secret plan to launch a “blitz operation” to arrest thousands of migrant parents and children in 10 cities.

The idea, which Homeland Security officials blocked as politically and logistically perilous, was to mount a “show of force" to dissuade families from seeking asylum.

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Congressional Democrats have long treated the asylum-seeking crush as a humanitarian crisis instead of a security crisis — viewing asylum-seeking families as a different type of migration from in the past — and they have been developing their own solutions to it.

The new aspect of the problem appears to be escalating: More than 109,000 migrants were detained in April, with families and children making up almost 60 percent, the highest ever, and the system appears overwhelmed. Trump’s get-tough solutions have failed spectacularly.

The Democratic bill had previously been introduced. But it now takes on much more significance as a response to Trump’s border mess — and with a 2020 debate on these matters looming.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and dozens of other Democrats, contains four basic components, according to a summary:

More aid to the Northern Triangle. The bill would ramp up financial assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, to mitigate the horrible civil conditions — rampant violence, deep poverty, rule-of-law breakdown — that are spurring migrations. The aid would be conditioned on the State Department verifying that governments in those countries are making reforms.

Create other options for migrants making the journey. The bill would invest in creating new options for refugees to apply for entry from Mexico and Central America, rather than journeying to the border, where migrants are turning themselves in and applying.

Investments to speed up processing. The bill would substantially increase the number of immigration judges to unclog court backlogs. The long waits result in many families being released into the U.S. interior, with some not returning for court hearings, though the scale of this problem is sharply disputed.

More protections for migrant children. The bill creates new criminal penalties for smuggling and the defrauding of migrants — particularly children. It also reforms procedures pairing unaccompanied children with adult sponsors and enrolling them in local school districts.

“Many refugees from Central America are women and children fleeing violence, and many have a strong case for entry,” Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy for the Immigration Hub, told me. “America has the resources to handle this problem.”

The deeper dispute

The deeper argument here can be split into two separate parts. The first concerns why asylum seekers come and how to approach that. The second concerns what to do when they arrive.

On the first, the Democratic analysis is that “push” factors, such as horrible civil conditions at home, are primary. Thus, Democrats would invest more in mitigating those conditions and giving migrants more options for applying for relief to dissuade the journey.

By contrast, the president focuses on “pull” factors: Migrants are trying to scam their way into the awesome Trump economy, not acting out of desperation. Trump nixed aid to those three countries to bully them into not “sending” migrants, and favors displays of physical toughness (barriers, troops, the proposed deportation “blitz”) and deterrence (charging fees to apply). But those have failed because, for many, the desperation outweighs Trump’s efforts to impose misery, fear and dissuasion, something he cannot fathom.

Notably, some around Trump, such as acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan, accept aspects of the Democratic narrative, favoring more aid to Central American countries. Some Republicans would likely favor in-country processing to reduce numbers making the trek.

The second part of the dispute -- what to do about those here -- is perhaps more difficult. The Trump narrative is again about “pull” factors: because of laws requiring the release of migrant families, and the granting of due process, the wait for hearings provides an incentive to come to the United States and simply disappear into the interior. So Trump wants to make families wait in Mexico, change laws to detain them indefinitely, and make it more difficult to pass the initial screening to enter the system.

By contrast, for Democrats, the problem can be dramatically mitigated through resources and reforms: Speeding up court processes, as well as new techniques to track migrant families, can reduce opportunities for disappearing without resorting to family detention.

The Democratic vision is that retreating on our international humanitarian commitments to asylum seekers is unacceptable, and that the problem can be managed better, through a combination of addressing home conditions, providing other avenues to apply, and rationalizing the process for arrivals. Providing counsel and better information, increasing their chances of success, would incentivize showing up for hearings.

Trump, by contrast, refuses to entertain the very idea of managing the problem without dramatically scaling back our humanitarian commitments. That’s a goal in itself. He and immigration adviser Stephen Miller just want far fewer immigrants here, and are deeply devoted to that end.

Those are the broad outlines of the debate we’ll be having in 2020, and it’s joined.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Trump has no idea what he’s doing

The Post’s View: How both Trump and Democrats can win on immigration

The Post’s View: William Barr’s immigration order is the latest example of Trump’s punitive policy

Eugene Robinson: Trump invented an immigration crisis to further his most consistent goal