Princeton N. Lyman, a senior adviser to the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, was director of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration from 1989 to 1992.
There is no easy answer to the crisis on our border. Humanitarian considerations cry out for compassion for the tens of thousands of migrants, many of them children, streaming into the United States. But unrestricted entry is untenable and will only undermine support for desperately needed reform of our immigration system. As the United States seeks to address this crisis, it is useful to look back on a challenge that similarly confronted Asian countries several decades ago: the outpouring of “boat people” from Vietnam.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia all were overwhelmed by the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese refugees on their shores. The journey of these boat people, as they were called, was just as fraught as the one being undertaken by Central Americans today. Many died, or were robbed or raped, in the attempt. But few were political refugees. Most were fleeing poor economic conditions.
The United States, with animosity lingering from the Vietnam War, argued strongly against anyone being forcibly returned. Though it was ambivalent, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took the same position, as did U.S. advocates for refugees. The issue quickly became a major point of contention between the United States and our Asian allies, along with Britain, which was determined to force back those crowding into camps in Hong Kong.
Here is the solution that was eventually hammered out: All the boat people would be screened for a possible right to asylum. The United States and other Western countries pledged to take in those who qualified. Those who did not — the vast majority — were required to return to Vietnam. But the UNHCR would monitor these returnees to assure that they were not punished or otherwise harassed for having fled. Under this agreement, in a few years almost all the boat people were either resettled as refugees or back in Vietnam. The UNHCR reported no cases of harassment.
Those fleeing Central America today are running from both wretched economic conditions and criminal violence. Few will qualify as political refugees. Nevertheless, their fear of violence is real. Honduras is the murder capital of the world, with Guatemala close behind. And we in the United States must remember that the cartels who feed that violence exist because of the large, persistent U.S. market for their drugs.
But it will not solve anything to allow all those fleeing to remain in the United States. As a former head of the UNHCR said, migration cannot be the solution to worldwide poverty.
The story of the Vietnamese boat people offers another way. One obvious need: safe but restricted holding centers. Other countries are able to move quite rapidly to erect temporary tent camps and other shelters for rushes of refugees and make good use of experienced volunteer agencies to provide health, food and other support. Why can’t the United States do the same? The appearance of tent cities here might strike some as shocking, but continuing to ship migrants around the country or releasing them to relatives will only undermine the chance of reaching a longer-term solution.
Second, all arrivals should be entitled to screening for possible asylum. Doing this will require a quick and careful expansion of screening experts and facilities. This was done for the Vietnamese; it can be done here.
Third, an international body should be designated or created to monitor the conditions of those being returned, plus provide some temporary resettlement assistance and make recommendations for addressing the root causes of the migration. This could be done through a special entity within the UNHCR, but it would be better if accomplished by a cross-section of U.N. agencies that can address drug trafficking, criminal violence and development issues.
Fourth, the countries of North America — in particular, the United States and Mexico — should pledge resources to address the recommendations of the monitoring body and to support long-term solutions.
The approach above would not work perfectly. Some children would be deprived of reconnection with relatives in the United States, and many will have their dreams of a new life shattered. Some heartbreaking stories will no doubt emerge. But if these steps ultimately led to a serious effort to address the underlying cause of this crisis, and others like it that will inevitably arise without action, then millions will benefit.
And if such steps helped, too, to bring about comprehensive immigration reform, the United States can remain a land of immigrants welcoming those who can come lawfully, freely and without fear or confinement.