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Political Opponents Disagree Over Whether Migrant Influx Is A Crisis


Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says a recent increase in apprehensions at the southern border justifies President Trump's focus on it.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our capacity is already severely restrained, but these increases will overwhelm the system entirely. This is not a manufactured crisis. This is truly an emergency.

INSKEEP: An emergency, of course, is what the president declared to justify the eventual building of a wall. But what's really happening now? Doris Meissner served as head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton and is now at the Migration Policy Institute, and she's on the line.

Good morning.

DORIS MEISSNER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do you see in this big increase in people being apprehended from January to February?

MEISSNER: Well, I'm not sure we entirely understand it, but we certainly see the trend lines going in a direction that is not good and that has been very much exacerbated by the administration's actions. The administration is looking at this flow as a threat and is trying to cut off any access that these people have to claiming asylum in the United States. And as a result, people keep coming, probably, because they're fearing whatever the next shoe is that's going to drop.

INSKEEP: I don't understand.

MEISSNER: Instead...

INSKEEP: Yeah, we can - if you can explain, how would the administration's actions to try to stop this flow actually make the flow worse?

MEISSNER: Because people are uncertain about what's going to happen. They see the policies changing every several months. They hear from the smugglers that help them and from the communities in the United States that they know about that the circumstances are continually hardening. And so with the push factors that exist in Central America - lots of violence, lots of gang activity - they're trying to get here as soon as they can.

INSKEEP: Is it correct that the United States really does not have the proper facilities to detain and to process and to give proper judicial proceedings to so many people?

MEISSNER: That is true, and that's the real issue here - that our border enforcement and all of our infrastructure is basically set up for the Mexican flow, young male migrants coming to the country to work, and that's a flow that's no longer the predominant circumstance at the southwest border.

What we have is a flow from Central American. Lots of people in that flow who may be eligible for asylum - by no means all of them, but they should be able to have their cases heard. And they require different facilities and different personnel - asylum officers, judges - not border enforcement officials trying to push them back to Mexico.

INSKEEP: So a couple of different ways have been tried to address this. One is the president's emergency declaration. He wants more wall built along the border. We can presume that's not going to be a factor here because it's a wall that'll be there months or years from now.

But there was also this compromise on border security in Congress that the president signed. Does that include any money, any measures that will directly help this problem?

MEISSNER: Well, we don't know. It's in the category of humanitarian aid. Presumably, it should help to some degree with facilities. But there really needs to be a much bigger redo or makeover of what our border footprint looks like.

You need facilities for families and for children. You need asylum officers and judges that hear cases. You need the ability to have medical assistance available. And you need a way for people to know how it is that they should file their claims for asylum. The encouragement has been to come through ports of entry, but ports of entry are not staffed. They don't have the space. And therefore, very limited numbers are processed every day - 40 or 50 a day.

And so it's a much bigger rethinking and recognizing that there is a humanitarian flow here. By no means are all people eligible, but the best deterrence is to decide the cases. Those who are eligible for protection get it, others have to be returned.

INSKEEP: Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute, thanks so much.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2019 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of the Web summary misspelled Doris Meissner's first name as Dorris.