(CN) – “You can’t deter people from fleeing for their lives. If people are fleeing from a burning building, and you lock one door, they’re going to jump out a window.”
Since President Donald Trump rolled out family-detention efforts on June 20 — replacing a much-maligned system of separating immigrants from their children at the border — Eleanor Acer at Human Rights First has been on the front lines of those calling for the administration to end its zero-tolerance policy.
Trump officials maintain that deterrence is the end game, but when it comes to asylum seekers from an unstable region of Central America known as the Northern Triangle, experts say enforcement tactics are unlikely to work.
As the make their way across Mexico from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, migrants have at least two choices: on foot or atop train cars.
“The journey that they take to get to the southern border is in a way more a deterrent than I think anything the government can do,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor and immigration expert at UCLA. “That’s one way to think about it.”
Back in 2014 — the same year that the Obama administration ramped up its own family-detention program — an independent think tank called the Migration Policy Institute found limited successes from deterrence programs.
After studying the system of consequences used by border enforcement, the institute found that prosecution helped deter people who migrated for economic reasons — not for asylum — from trying to enter the U.S. more than once in the same year.
The United States saw a 90 percent surge in migrant arrivals in 2014. The following year, a series of critical court rulings forced then-President Barack Obama to disband his family-detention program.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the White House responded to requests for comment for this story, but the Center for Immigration Studies is among those that supports the president.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative think tank, has called for across-the-board detention of those who enter the U.S. outside ports of entry, including asylum seekers.
“Ideally you want to keep people in detention the entire time,” Krikorian said, referring to the time it takes for the government to process their cases.
Krikorian said there are also deterrence measures that the United States could take from the inside, such as making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and jobs.
Challenges to the Trump administration’s family family-detention policy meanwhile are already underway. In a key ruling Monday, a federal judge in Washington said the government cannot indefinitely detain adult asylum seekers who enter the U.S. legally without evidence that they pose a flight risk or a danger to the public. The law at issue gives discretion to U.S. officials, however, and its interpretation by Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains unclear.
Sarah Pierce, an analyst in the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, noted in an interview that it is too early to measure the deterrent effect of family separations that occurred as a result of the zero-tolerance policy that the Trump administration unveiled in April 2018.
Pierce did surmise, however, that any change would probably be minimal.
Parent and child might be separated, Pierce explained, but “that parent can sleep at night with relative reassurance that their child is safe in a country with a strong rule of law, where at home that might not have been the case.”
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 20 percent of all migrants, whether apprehended between points of entry or deemed “inadmissible” at U.S. points of entry, qualify for an early step in the asylum process known as a credible-fear interview.
With regard to people accused of unlawful entry, Pierce quoted federal statute: U.S. law mandates the detention of all until deportation unless they have passed this interview.
While it is legal for people to claim asylum at ports of entry, news outlets routinely find border patrol agents telling asylum seekers that the ports are at capacity and to “come back later.”
“I interpret a lot of deterrence as an attempt to make sure those kids or those families are not allowed to assert their rights under U.S. law,” said UCLA’s Motomura.
When people come into our Country illegally, we must IMMEDIATELY escort them back out without going through years of legal maneuvering. Our laws are the dumbest anywhere in the world. Republicans want Strong Borders and no Crime. Dems want Open Borders and are weak on Crime!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2018
All of the experts interviewed for this article said that a successful immigration enforcement strategy would be multilayered, consistent and involve substantial resource dumps throughout the Americas, though they disagreed on exactly what and where those resources should be.
Krikorian, who advocated for more detention, said he was playing the long game.
“There’s an up-front cost [to broad detention policies], no question about it,” he said. But “if you’re detaining people, and returning them when their asylum claims fail, you’re going to see a reduction in the number of people who are going to need to be detained.” Krikorian suggested some of the funding could come from a remittance tax.
Both the Migration Policy Institute and Human Rights First promote alternatives to detention, such as the now-shuttered Family Case Management Program for asylum seekers.
Pierce said the administration should also hire more immigration judges so adjudication could be “timely but fair.” And Acer called for the U.S. to take a more international view.
“As long as you fail to deal with the underlying conditions that are driving people to leave their homes, you’re not going to succeed ultimately in deterring people,” said Acer, who is senior director of the refugee-protection program at Human Rights First.
Motomura expressed a similar outlook.
“Spending money in other countries to manage migration is an investment, not an expenditure,” he said. “I think the money would be better spent in giving people options to stay home.”