(Meg Kinnard/AP)
Opinion writer

President Trump has shelved his plans for mass arrests of undocumented families, but he is now threatening to revive them unless Democrats give him the changes to immigration law he’s demanding.

At the same time, Trump and his allies are on the defensive over reports that migrant children are being held in horribly inhumane conditions.

These two things are creating a big opening for Democrats to develop their own answers to the asylum crisis and, more broadly, to Trump’s cruel and hateful ethno-nationalism. And they are currently in the process of coalescing around such answers.

The Center for American Progress is releasing an important new report that, ideally, will help build a template for this emerging set of answers.

The CAP report seeks to revamp the public debate over the asylum crush, which Trump and his allies have cast as the result of a combination of nefarious intent by asylum seekers and Democratic complicity in helping them scam their way in.

Trump wants changes to the law that would allow for the long-term detention of families so that they don’t disappear while awaiting hearings, and he’s threatening to restart mass arrests to force Democrats to pass them. He claims that if Democrats did this, the incentive to seek asylum would vanish (even though new data demonstrates that families actually do show up for hearings at high rates).

But this analysis of the situation is absurdly reductive. The CAP report spells out the legitimate and extreme deprivation many migrants face, and the true depth of abysmal conditions in home countries. It argues that much more comprehensive regional solutions, predicated on a much more serious and far-reaching analysis of the situation, are necessary and require sustained American leadership.

Among the key points the report makes:

These are very real, new challenges, but they are manageable. The report details that the percentage of migrants from Latin America who are refugees and asylum seekers has spiked dramatically — which requires a whole new way of thinking about immigration. If we fail, the report argues, the long-term risks of increased instability in the Americas will be exacerbated.

However, the report cautions against allowing demagogues to hijack this debate: “The United States is neither being invaded, nor does it face an unmanageable migration crisis.”

These migrations are part of something much larger. The report details that “the movement of displaced persons within South America vastly exceeds northbound migration from Mexico and Central America towards the United States.” Also, we aren’t the only regional recipient of asylum seekers: Many Venezuelans seek refuge in Brazil and Peru.

In other words, this isn’t just about migrants exploiting our laws. The phenomenon is much bigger.

The conditions spurring these migrations are truly horrific. The report details the staggering crime rates and dire economic conditions in the Northern Triangle countries, which include drought, malnutrition, crop disease and hunger.

Climate change is a big driver of migrations. The report notes that changing weather patterns are a big driver of migrations, because “the agricultural sector accounts for a quarter of employment in the Northern Triangle.” The result is “drought” and “irregular rainfall” and “food insecurity and devastated livelihoods.”

If climate change is a driver of migrations, and we are an outsize cause of that problem, it obliges us to rethink our international obligations.

Those conditions could get worse. As the report notes, it’s plausible that future events — further political deterioration in Venezuela, a major climate disaster in Central America — could “significantly exacerbate migration dynamics in the Americas.”

This is a crucial point: It underscores the folly of imagining that tweaking a few laws, or making it harder to apply for asylum, or ramping up the cruelty, or building walls is enough to make a difference. The long-term challenges demand much more from us.

“Economic migration” isn’t the same as fleeing extreme privation. These migrants are driven by “fear and extreme privation,” which is fundamentally different from the “search for economic opportunity” that has sometimes driven previous waves of migration. That’s a key distinction in understanding the current situation and its new logistical challenges.

We need to think big. The report proposes solutions that, crucially, treat this as a “top-tier priority across the entire U.S. government.” These include creating a “senior-level special coordinator for the Northern Triangle” under the president and ramping up economic aid “to scale,” which means much, much, much bigger expenditures, and a much more diligent effort to micro-target those investments at the above regional problems.

This also entails trying to coax other regional governments to take in migrants as part of a regionally negotiated effort — something Trump has made harder by cutting off aid and threatening Mexico. And it includes recommendations for using the U.S. financial system to disable human trafficking networks.

The report also suggests letting more people in — and letting more people stay. This entails raising the refugee cap for fleeing Venezuelans and granting temporary protected status protections to them.

That’s only a partial summary. There’s lots more to discuss, such as how to reform the processing of migrants in a way that doesn’t retreat on our international humanitarian commitments. Senate Democrats have rolled out a proposal that would ramp up investments in the courts, and House Democrats are set to vote on a bill that would crank up investments in humanitarian border infrastructure.

You’ll be hearing more such proposals from progressive think tanks in coming days, and such ideas are at the core of proposals by Democratic presidential candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro and, now, Joe Biden.

In short: A progressive and Democratic answer to Trump on this very big set of challenges is indeed in the process of coalescing.

Read more:

James Downie: Mike Pence is just helpless

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s lies need to be exposed in real time

Greg Sargent: Border crossings just spiked again. Trump’s response is getting more absurd.

Henry Olsen: We don’t take immigration enforcement seriously. Trump’s deportation threats show why.

Daniel W. Drezner: Trump thinks immigration is a winning issue for 2020. Is he right?

Marc A. Thiessen: Don’t downplay Trump’s role in the U.S.-Mexico immigration deal. His strategy worked.

Alexandria Petri: Appropriate ways of describing what is happening at the border