That outrage doesn’t diminish the urgency of dealing with the waves of Central Americans flooding northward. What would constitute a reasonable, humane and legal response?
One option examined by the Obama administration, and now being pursued more actively by the Trump administration, is to push the problem to Mexico. The idea is to strike a bilateral deal requiring migrants to seek protection by applying for asylum there rather than here. In theory, it makes some sense; Europe pursued a similar deal with Turkey in 2016, at a cost exceeding $6 billion, to stanch the flow of refugees from Syria. In practice, it is a terrible idea that would subject migrants from Central America and elsewhere to further violence and danger, and probably do little to curb illegal immigration to the United States.
In 2002, the United States and Canada secured a similar arrangement, known as a “safe third country” agreement. It has worked because Canada is, in fact, a safe third country: Migrants who apply for asylum there are secure, and their cases are fairly adjudicated.
By contrast, Mexico is patently unsuitable as a place of refuge for most migrants, especially those from Central America, who suffer exploitation, violence and sexual assault almost routinely as they make their way north. In a recent report, Doctors Without Borders noted that two-thirds of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran migrants in Mexico have reported being victims of violence; almost a third of migrant women there had been sexually assaulted. Twelve of the world’s 50 most violent cities are in Mexico. Forcing refugees to seek sanctuary in Mexico would thrust tens of thousands of them into a country with weak law enforcement, a flimsy judicial system, an anemic asylum process and predatory criminal gangs.
Under those circumstances, it is folly to think migrants would stay put. Much more likely, they would simply find a way to enter the United States illegally, even without the chance to apply for asylum here.
Administration officials may hope to exert leverage to induce Mexico to accept such a deal, perhaps in return for a break on tariffs or the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Trump has threatened to curtail. They may seek to exploit President Enrique Peña Nieto’s current lame-duck period, before his elected successor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, takes office Dec. 1.
That doesn’t change Mexico’s on-the-ground reality.
This is not an argument for open borders. Rather, the right response, and the one most likely to succeed in the long term, is for the United States to redouble efforts to strengthen governments and fight the lawlessness that has seized Central America’s refugee-producing countries. Short of that, the administration’s efforts will be self-defeating.