The Challenges at our Southern Border Cry Out for Durable Solutions

The headlines and chyrons call it a “border crisis.” But the crisis is not at our southern border, it’s in Central America. We don’t need simplistic sensationalism, we need durable solutions.

To get there we have to confront hard truths, dismiss political gamesmanship, and construct a set of administrative and legislative reforms that transform the badly broken status quo into an immigration system that is fair, humane and functional.

Hard Truths

I have been working on refugee and immigration issues for 40 years. I can attest to the Groundhog Day nature of the current discussion. We need to understand the dimensions of the challenge if we are to achieve durable solutions:

  • Our immigration system has been dysfunctional for decades. It’s been 30 years since Congress enacted meaningful immigration reform.
  • Trump and Stephen Miller came along and weaponized the broken system with a strategy of deterrence through intentional cruelty.
  • The current enforcement strategy at the southern border was designed for a different era, when most of those crossing without authorization were single adults from Mexico in search of work. Today, most of those coming are families and children from Central America seeking asylum. Our strategies have not adjusted to this new reality.
  • We have 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America, who despite being fully integrated into our economy and way of life, live in daily fear of being ripped from families, homes, jobs and communities.

And yes, there is a crisis, but it’s not at our border. It’s in Central America:

  • For decades, a witches brew of brutal inequality, violent civil wars, American foreign policy, gang violence, sexual violence, police impunity, corrupt officials, human rights violations, climate change, natural disasters and poverty have conspired to propel citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek safety, family and opportunity in America.
  • The numbers of migrants and refugees seeking protection and opportunities in America goes up and goes down, but it has little to do with whether the President of the U.S. is a nice guy or not. The fear of staying is greater than the fear of taking a perilous 1,500 mile journey to the border.
  • We experienced increases in border arrivals from Central America in the early to mid-1980’s, in the late 1990’s, and in the mid-2000s. More recently, the numbers went up in 2014 under Obama and in 2019 under Trump. The rise in numbers that has led to today’s overcrowding in CBP and HHS facilities started under Trump in April 2020.

Solutions That Work

If we’re interested in solutions at the border, we have to look beyond the border. We need to put in place a regional strategy that 1) builds a safe, humane and orderly refugee and immigration system that channels Central American migration into legal pathways; and 2) over time, addresses the causes of out-migration that drive so many Central Americans to decide they have no alternative but to seek refuge in America. Some of the key elements:

  • Reduce migration pressures: Invest in strategies that reduce violence, root out corruption and improve stability in the Central American communities that generate refugees and migrants. Without addressing root causes, nothing will change. With something like a Marshall Plan for Central America, migration can become, over time, more of a choice than a matter of life and death.
  • Create legal immigration pathways: Currently, the main way Central Americans apply for entry into America is by travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum. By creating multiple entry points for legal immigration in the region, we can take pressure off the border. This can be done by using America’s successful refugee resettlement program to vet, admit and relocate refugees with families and sponsors. In addition, we can make more work visas and family reunification visas available so that those seeking work and family can come to America on airplanes with visas rather than taking the dangerous journey to the border.
  • Crack down on the smugglers: Human trafficking is big business, and transnational criminal organizations make billions preying on vulnerable migrants, especially women and unaccompanied minors.
  • Undo Trump’s cruelty: Trump gutted our asylum system and dismantled programs that are orderly and humane. Among the changes needed to build a fair and humane system: keep unwinding MPP, known as the Remain in Mexico program; unwind and end the Title 42 public health restrictions; build a fair asylum process at our ports of entry; promote access to legal counsel; make the immigration court system apolitical and independent; and ramp up community-based case management programs that have proven to ensure compliance rates of 99% — at a fraction of the cost of detention.

But to modernize the system, we cannot stop there. We need Congress to step up and finally deal with the fact that 11 million undocumented immigrants are our neighbors and family members who live, work and contribute to American communities. Now that Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House, they need to use every ounce of their power to recognize hard working immigrant families as the Americans they already are. Here are the legislative proposals moving through Congress:

  • The Dream and Promise Act: put immigrant youth with DACA and those with Temporary Protected who are settled in America on a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. This bill passed the House early this year on a bipartisan basis.
  • The Farm Workforce Modernization Act: put farm workers who feed us on a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. This bill passed the House early this year on a bipartisan basis.
  • Citizenship for Essential Workers Act: introduced in both chambers, the bill recognizes that those who risk their lives to keep our economy open should no longer be deportable, and should be given the chance to apply for permanent residence and citizenship.
  • The U.S. Citizenship Act, the bill drafted by the Biden White House, would put all 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, introduce smart border measures that rely on technology and infrastructure, and enhance Biden’s regional strategy aimed at managing the movement of refugees and migrants from Central America.

Dismiss the Political Gamesmanship

The GOP is big on soundbites and stunts but short on solutions.

Led by Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham, Republican lawmakers recently toured the border on gunboats — as if unaccompanied minors posed a security threat. Rachel Scott of ABC News accompanied them and reported this: “We were out past 1 am Friday with more than a dozen Republican senators along the southern border. Their message: Send the unaccompanied minors back.”

More Donald Trump and Stephen Miller cruelty? Really?

Trump’s relentless war on immigrants was not only cruel, but prioritized short-term, deterrence-only approaches over long-term solutions. Among them:

  • Trump ripped 5,000 toddlers from the arms of their parents’ arms without a system in place to reunite them;
  • Trump invested billions in a costly and ineffective border wall;
  • Trump cut aid to Central America;
  • Trump forced those seeking asylum into squalid settlements and dangerous conditions in northern Mexico;
  • Trump ended the program that allows minors to apply for protection in the region so they wouldn’t have to make the perilous journey to the border;
  • Trump decimated the orderly refugee resettlement program;
  • Trump ended DACA in an effort to subject Dreamers to deportation (stopped for now by the courts);
  • Trump opposed multiple bipartisan proposals to put millions on pathways to citizenship.
  • Trump framed all of it by dehumanizing migrants and asylum-seekers as “rapists” and “criminals” and “murderers” from “shithole countries.”

The strategy was repugnant. The strategy did not work. The system has never been more broken. As immigration expert Pete Boogaard of recently wrote in USA Today,

“We’ve just left behind four years of President Donald Trump’s cruelty as a deterrence border policy and saw firsthand that his approach was a failure by any moral, substantive or political measure…Cruelty doesn’t equal strength and it certainly isn’t an effective long-term border strategy. So we are left with a binary choice: return to Trump’s failed policies, or embrace a new approach.”

The Republicans aren’t interested in a new approach. They want to distract from their opposition to the popular COVID relief package, their opposition to popular infrastructure investments and their refusal to disavow the Big Lie that led to the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, their claims of an “out of control border” have been a trope trotted out by Republicans for years, both as a policy issue to thwart long overdue immigration reforms, and as a dog-whistle wedge issue come election season.

Go Big and Stay the Course

Here’s the kicker about the proposed solutions outlined above: every one of them is supported and promoted by the Biden-Harris administration already. The appointment of Vice-President Kamala Harris is an indication of the President’s commitment to following through on this plan. It is consistent with what we see from this White House on a range of issues: go big to solve problems in a way that restores our confidence in the ability of government to change lives for the better.

One note of caution: patience is required. The transition from Trump’s cruelty and chaos to Biden’s humane and orderly system will be hard, will take time, and as we see at the border today, will be bumpy. Let’s hope the White House keeps its nerve, dismisses media sensationalism and bad faith Republicans to see it through.

It’s time. It’s time to stop wringing our hands about our broken immigration system and start building the fair, humane and functional system Americans want. It’s time to shift from short term sensationalism to durable solutions. It’s time to restore our global standing as a beacon of hope that welcomes newcomers in a way that strengthens our nation and our role in the world.



Father. Husband. Immigrant rights advocate. Founder and Executive Director of @AmericasVoice

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Frank Sharry

Father. Husband. Immigrant rights advocate. Founder and Executive Director of @AmericasVoice