IMAGINE THE United States could, from scratch, create an orderly, rational system to cope with asylum seekers at the Southern border — a regime at once efficient, humane and fair. It would process and adjudicate migrants in the border region relatively quickly (in days or weeks, not months or years), admit those with serious and verifiable claims, and deny and deport those without them. Catch-and-release would be unheard of; so would years-long processing times.
It would, in other words, look nothing like the status quo, which has bloomed into a crisis that has overwhelmed existing infrastructure and bureaucracy. Yet building such a system would be possible, and at a fraction of the price President Trump wants to spend erecting a wall that would do nothing to deter asylum seekers.
Unfortunately, neither Mr. Trump nor Democrats have advanced a blueprint to address the crisis. The president prefers fulminating, as though the migrant surge might evaporate in the face of his fury. Democrats, goaded into an oppositionist rut by the president’s harsh rhetoric and policies, are now at risk of being plausibly portrayed as a party indifferent to porous borders — a stance that is substantively wrong and could invite electoral disaster.
A cogent plan to cope with the tsunami of asylum-seeking migrants, mainly Central American families and unaccompanied minors, would start with hundreds more immigration judges to supplement the existing 400 or so whose backlog of roughly 800,000 cases means that hearings are now scheduled for 2021 and beyond. It would mean expanding and constructing detention centers near the border, suitable for families, that could accommodate many multiples of their current capacity while migrants await the adjudication of their cases. And it would probably entail congressional action that would permit authorities to hold families for more than the three weeks that court decrees have set as a limit on detentions that involve children. Crucially, the existence of a functional system would in short order begin to deter migrants without plausible asylum claims from embarking on the risky and expensive journey.
Mr. Trump is right that immigration laws are broken and that the country needs meaningful borders. He’s wrong, though, to continue pursuing draconian measures such as wrenching children from their families, which officials are now reported to be considering again, in modified form. That approach, along with threats to close the border, narrow asylum criteria and create artificial bottlenecks to impede asylum seekers from legally entering the country, is doomed — legally, constitutionally and practically.
If Mr. Trump were serious about a constructive compromise solution, he has chips he could play. He could offer a deal to legalize “dreamers,” the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants brought to this country as children. He could expand legal immigration, which would make sense given historically low unemployment and worker shortages in a range of industries. He could redouble U.S. efforts to improve living conditions in migrant-producing countries rather than cut off their aid, as he recently said he would. Instead, the president signals he will get “tough,” as if addressing the migrant surge were a contest of wills rather than a crisis to be managed with adequate resources and effective policies.