Many in the United States advocate “merit-based” immigration policies designed to favor educated, high-skilled people seeking entry to the country.
Those coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras often lack these qualities. Instead, they are fleeing areas that have been compared to the worst armed conflicts in the world. Doctors without Borders interviewed people from these countries on their way to the U.S. and found that 39 percent cited attacks or threats to themselves or family as the reason for leaving. More than 40 percent had a relative who was killed in the past two years. Thirty-one percent knew someone who was kidnapped.
The trip to the U.S. is both expensive and dangerous. Many sell all they have in a desperate gamble to reach safety. Those fleeing are often victims of sexual violence or other crimes during the journey. They risk everything because staying behind is worse.
According to General John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, violence in the region is driven by the uncontrolled U.S. demand for drugs from South America. Criminal organizations transport drugs through these countries, creating a security vacuum. Violence is made worse by weapons from the U.S., some left over from the Cold War and others the result of illegal trafficking in firearms.
It is legal to seek asylum. The U.S. government argues that people fleeing these areas do not qualify because they do not fit the technical definition of a refugee. Yet they fit the spirit of the definition. The U.N. refugee agency concluded “that a significant percentage of those fleeing … may be in need of international protection, in line with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.”
The Obama and Trump administrations increased deportations to these countries. People have been murdered after being returned. What if they were allowed to stay? In 2016, the U.S. government detained 224,854 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Even if the rate was maintained for a decade, it would still be a much smaller share of the U.S. population than previous waves of migrants such as Irish, Italians and Russian Jews.
The vast majority of those detained at the border from these countries are not gang members, but innocent people fleeing violence. Advocating that we respect norms for the treatment of refugees is not the same as advocating for open borders. Open borders would allow anyone to come, for any reason. Granting protection to people fleeing violence lets in those who have a genuine fear for their safety and is consistent with long-held American values. It is also consistent with border security.
Studies show that tougher border policies are unlikely to stop the flow of desperate people fleeing for their lives. Instead, it drives them into the arms of traffickers, increasing the power of organized criminal groups and decreasing the U.S. government’s ability to manage the flow of people. This makes us less safe, not more.
Previous waves of refugees help build the U.S, and not because they had college degrees. They made the country great because they possessed the courage to conquer unimaginable odds to provide a safe home for their children, the drive to move forward and the gratitude to work toward a better future for the country that offered them safe haven. These are the merits of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the merits that drove refugees to help create Comcast, Google, Intel, PayPal and WhatsApp along with hundreds of thousands of jobs in America. These are the merits possessed by Central Americans looking to the United States as the bright beacon on the hill.
Some policymakers argue it is a security threat to accept people from violent countries. All refugees come from countries with security concerns. That is why they flee. Proper vetting at the border can minimize risks while allowing people a path to safety that can lead to immense payoffs for America’s future.
Security was the excuse for not admitting those fleeing Germany before and during World War II. A more compassionate approach to today’s asylum-seekers is consistent with American values and interests.
Sarah Bermeo is associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, and author of "Targeted Development" (Oxford, 2018).