Two nuggets of information from the federal government last week paint a stark portrait of failed government policies toward migration.

Despite President Donald Trump’s heavy-handed approach — belligerence, threats, tariffs and mass detentions designed to dissuade would-be immigrants from trying to cross the border and enter the United States — apprehensions exceeded 144,000 people at the U.S.-Mexico border last month.

That’s nudging up toward monthly levels reached nearly two decades ago when agents nabbed a record 1.6 million border-crossers in a single year.

Note to the White House: If your thuggish deterrence policies were working, border apprehensions would be going down.

Second, a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found atrociously bad conditions during spot checks of four federal immigration detention centers, including one in Adelanto in San Bernardino County.

There, inspectors found out-of-date food and leaking packages of raw chicken in refrigerators (the kitchen manager was replaced in mid-inspection), and in some cells they discovered bedsheet nooses, despite a history of suicide attempts at the facility.

That report followed another one last month that discovered between 750 and 900 detainees jammed into an El Paso temporary holding facility designed to handle 125 people, with men “standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space,” which, of course, made access to the toilets exceedingly difficult.

Remember, the people being held in such grotesquely inhumane conditions are not being prosecuted for serious crimes but are being processed after getting caught at or near the border — in many cases having turned themselves in to seek asylum. The squalid conditions and other alleged human rights abuses has led some advocates to seek an investigation by a special rapporteur for the United Nations United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Systemwide, there have been some two dozen deaths in detention over the past couple of years, including children and transgender migrants.

Federal officials have warned that the influx of migrants is overwhelming their capacity for handling them. Two decades ago, the crossers were predominately single men from Mexico seeking work. Now, they are predominately unaccompanied minors and families fleeing poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

President Trump has framed this as a national emergency that threatens the nation’s security, as well as a humanitarian crisis. He’s half right — it’s a humanitarian crisis that demands a humanitarian response.

To be honest, the administration — despite its reflexive authoritarianism — has tried to do a few things right. It is working with Mexico and Guatemala — including sending Homeland Security personnel — to try to stymie human smuggling networks. And it has asked Congress for additional funding to expand its capacity for handling newly arrived migrants. Unfortunately, that has come in the form of requests to vastly expand the detention system that it already can’t get right.

And the government shouldn’t be relying on detentions in the first place. Remember, the detainees at places like Adelanto by and large are people accused of violating civil rather than criminal laws, or who in a staggering number of cases are exercising their legally and international recognized right to seek asylum. They should only be detained if the government can make an individualized case that they pose a flight risk or a threat to public safety or national security as their applications are processed.

The administration also has sought additional money from Congress to continue to expand the capacity of the immigration courts to adjudicate the cases. That is a key part of the problem. If it is true, as the government argues, that migrants show up and claim asylum knowing they will be released pending a potentially years-long review process, one solution is to give them a faster answer.

The Migration Policy Institute has suggested setting up border-area processing centers to handle immigration cases, adopting a broad “last-in, first-out” approach to scheduling court cases to turn-around new arrivals faster, and allowing asylum officers to approve asylum requests. Currently, once a migrant passes a “credible fear” interview that he faces persecution if sent home, he gets to make that argument before a judge. If asylum officers could make a positive ruling in clear cases, that would relieve the court system of a significant number of cases and allow it to focus on appeals of denials.

But for the most part, the Trump approach has been to deter or try to shut off access to asylum, from charging border crossers seeking asylum with a misdemeanor count of illegal entry (which flouts the notion of asylum protections) to contemplating defying current U.S. immigration laws to reject asylum requests from anyone who comes through a third country.

And, of course, to imprison people whose biggest trespass is the dream of a better, safer life.


Scott Martelle, a Maine native, is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this first appeared.

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