Originally published by The NY Times
Facing a surge in migrant families entering the United States and with the midterm elections two weeks away, the Trump administration is weighing an array of new policies that it hopes will deter Central Americans from journeying north.
Each of the policies, which range from a new form of the widely criticized practice of family separation to stricter requirements on asylum, would face significant legal and logistical challenges. But the White House is applying strong pressure on federal immigration authorities to come up with a solution to secure the southwest border.
The Border Patrol apprehended 16,658 people in family units in September — a record figure, according to unpublished government data obtained by The New York Times. The total number of families that entered the country in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, exceeded 100,000 for the first time in recent history.
The surge is occurring even as the total number of border crossings, including individual adults and children traveling alone, remains well below the numbers seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
President Trump’s frustration was aroused again this week with the news that a caravan of thousands of Central American asylum seekers was headed toward the United States. He threatened on Twitter to call up the military and close the southern border if Mexico failed to halt the “onslaught” of migrants.
[Many Latino voters say they felt disempowered rather than emboldened this election year. Read more here about why Democrats need to get them to the polls.]
A series of intense closed-door meetings among officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the White House and the State Department began not long after a public outcry forced President Trump in June to stop separating migrant families in detention, often hundreds or thousands of miles apart, as a deterrent.
The architects of the family separation approach have been hard at work on alternatives, according to people briefed on the group’s efforts. Their goal is to announce a plan before the November elections that can withstand the legal challenges that crippled the administration’s previous attempts.
The group’s charge from the White House is simple and explicit: Replace what the administration describes as “catch and release,” the practice of releasing immigrants from detention while they wait for court hearings.
The most talked-about alternative would be a variation of the family separation policy. Parents would be forced to choose between voluntarily relinquishing their children to foster care or remaining imprisoned together as a family. The latter option would require parents to waive their child’s right to be released from detention within 20 days.
The goal of this option, known as “binary choice,” would be to “maximize deterrence and consequences for families,” according to a person familiar with the agenda for one of the officials’ meetings.
Another idea on the table is to speed up the legal cases of migrant families and process them on a first-in, first-out basis, in hopes that word would get back to Central America that border crossers were being swiftly deported.
The working group is also considering strengthening the standard of proof on asylum cases, a standard that has already risen under President Trump, in order to screen out more families during the first stage of the process, known as the “credible fear” interview. The final two ideas being discussed are extending the use of GPS ankle monitors, and immediately arresting anyone who receives a deportation order to ensure that they leave the country.
Officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security declined to discuss the administration’s next plans for border enforcement. Katie Waldman, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said in a statement that “absent congressional action, the department is examining all options to secure the border.”
With the elections less than three weeks away, Mr. Trump and conservative candidates are eager to rally voters around a new hard-line policy on immigration.
President Trump will hold a rally in Texas on Monday for Senator Ted Cruz, who supports the administration’s immigration policies. He is facing a tough challenge from Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, who has called for more compassionate border enforcement and has opposed Mr. Trump’s plan for a border wall.
“He will never be allowed to turn Texas into Venezuela!” Mr. Trump saidabout Mr. O’Rourke on Twitter on Friday.
In Arizona, a competitive state that is also ground zero for the recent surge, polls show that immigration is far and away the most important issue to most conservatives, while only a small minority of Democrats feel that way.
In a race that could help tip control of the Senate, Martha McSally, a Republican congresswoman, has cast herself as an immigration hawk in her race against Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic congresswoman who has supported protections for so-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally as children.
At a rally on Friday in Mesa, Ariz., Mr. Trump doubled down on his immigration message: “Democrats believe our country should be a giant sanctuary city for criminal aliens,” he said.
Public frustration over the issue was on display this week at Jerry Bob’s Family Restaurant, a traditional diner in Tucson that draws an eclectic crowd of retirees, blue-collar workers and young adults.
“We’re being overrun,” said Bob Chivers, 82, a retired heavy machine operator. He said he had been a Democrat for many years, then switched parties. “Democrats used to be for the working man. Now they suck up to minorities for political gain.”
But in downtown Tucson, several young people slumped over their laptops at Caffe Luce said they were voting for Democratic candidates, and none said they saw immigration as a problem.
“The more immigrants, the better,” said Kristen Godfrey, 28. What she really cared about, she said, were education and reproductive rights.
To win the support of voters like Mr. Chivers, the president has focused on what he calls “catch and release” and the immigrants who spend months or even years out of detention as they wait for their legal cases to proceed.
But Mr. Trump’s attempt in the spring to impose a “zero tolerance” policy at the border, through which more than 2,500 immigrant children were separated from their parents, generated searing — and politically damaging — images of crying toddlers and teenagers detained behind chain-link fences.
The global outcry forced a rare retreat on an issue that has dominated the president’s agenda since he took office. Behind closed doors in Washington, though, efforts to deter migration have continued.
Any new policy the administration adopts must navigate the complex terrain of federal law and court consent decrees that constrain the conditions of migrant detention.
First convened in 2017 to carry out the president’s campaign promises, the immigration working group consists of 20 to 30 officials. Mr. Trump has discussed the group’s work on regular calls with Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, several times each week.
As early as July, shortly after the family separation policy was rescinded, the working group had already zeroed in on several ideas.
Among them was the “binary choice” proposal. Questions were raised immediately about whether the policy would be legally defensible. Even if binary choice were to hold up in court, it may not work logistically, according to a Homeland Security official involved in drafting the policy, who was not authorized to discuss the deliberations publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some wondered whether a pilot program could be created to help establish what resources would be needed if it were applied border-wide. The group discussed starting the pilot at the Karnes County Residential Center near San Antonio, Texas, one of three facilities across the country where parents and children can be detained together.
The official said that Homeland Security representatives had cautioned the working group that most parents facing such a decision would choose to remain with their children, and as a result, family detention facilities would quickly run out of space.
The three residential family centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — two in South Texas and one in Pennsylvania — can accommodate 3,326 parents and children. Once capacity was reached, the Homeland Security representatives warned, the administration would be forced to release families — in a return to the present situation.
The working group also considered speeding up migrants’ court cases. Historically, however, that approach, known as a “rocket docket,” has not worked as a deterrent. President Barack Obama’s attempt to speed up the cases of migrant children who had crossed the border unaccompanied by an adult yielded little benefit.
But a hiring spree of immigration judges under President Trump could make the process faster and potentially more effective, so that alternative is still on the table.
The final three ideas under review — making it harder to apply for asylum, extending the use of GPS ankle monitors, and speeding up enforcement of deportation orders — also carry potential pitfalls.
Ankle monitors are typically used to track migrants for a few months after they cross the border. The new proposal would require the devices to be worn for the full duration of immigration cases, which take about two years to decide on average — a very long time to have to wear such a device. The proposal would require more funding, since it would require a much larger number of ankle bracelets.
The final proposal calls for changing current deportation procedures, under which migrants are given a date by which they must leave the country or report to an immigration office for deportation. Homeland Security officials cautioned that trying to deport people immediately could leave some children stranded — if their parents leave home for court, for example, and never come home. The policy could also further deter people from showing up to court.
In an interview at the height of the family separation controversy over the summer, Stephen Miller, the president’s senior adviser on immigration issues, said that voters would support efforts to crack down at the border. “I have absolute confidence, as does the entire administration, that the American public wants us to have a fully secure border with predictable consequences for illegal entry,” he said.
One way or another, the arrival of thousands of new migrant families will inevitably affect political races in border states like Arizona. These days, the Greyhound bus stations in Tucson are overflowing with new arrivals, and shelters are so full that some migrants are being checked into local motels.
“Every day, every bed has been taken in the last couple weeks,” said Gretchen Lopez, who runs the Inn, a migrant shelter in the basement of a Methodist church in Tucson. “I see no indication that it is slowing.”