The following was originally published as a Nov. 26 editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The humanitarian crisis at the California-Mexico border demands thoughtfulness and clear thinking from federal, state and local leaders. With thousands of Central Americans in Tijuana seeking asylum after the arrival of their “caravan” this month — and thousands more still expected in coming weeks — some obvious points need to be agreed upon while more complex moral questions come up for debate.
The first point is that President Donald Trump and his administration should follow the letter of federal law on asylum. San Francisco-based U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar issued a temporary restraining order blocking the president’s Nov. 8 proclamation that said no one who crossed the southern border illegally would be eligible for asylum. While Trump derided Tigar as an “Obama judge” — properly drawing a rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts — the judge was following a clearly written provision in a 1996 immigration law: Anyone in the nation can request asylum.
If the president wants to make it more likely that only those who are genuinely at risk in their home countries receive asylum — and that the unqualified don’t skip future hearings and join the millions of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. — then he should seek to sharply beef up the resources used to process asylum-seekers.
There is now a backlog of about 750,000 applicants. Of those from Central America, only 10 percent are generally granted asylum, according to The Washington Post. The disputed Post report that the incoming administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would be willing to have Mexican border areas serve as the “waiting room” for those seeking U.S. asylum is worth considering — if the safety of asylum-seekers can be assured in Mexico and if the asylum review process can be sharply improved and quickened in the U.S.
The second point is that the decision to close the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego for four hours on Sunday — and Trump’s Twitter vow to “permanently” close the border if more migrant “caravans” arrive — pose an immense threat to the regional binational economy, which generates $230 billion a year. This economic engine is utterly dependent on cross-border traffic, with roughly 120,000 passenger vehicles, 63,000 pedestrians and 6,000 trucks going back and forth on an average day. A border closure should never be made lightly. Sunday’s chaos at the border even prompted the Las Americas Premium Outlets in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego to close as the border mall’s holiday retail season began in earnest. Such disruptions are terrible for the economy.
The third point is that Border Patrol agents have a difficult job: maintaining order at the border. The Democrats who sharply criticized these agents for using tear gas Sunday to stop a group of migrants — men, women and children — who rushed the border and threw rocks at agents are blaming them for doing that job. Ultimately, no one was seriously hurt in the episode. That’s fortunate. Border Patrol agents and migrants considering rushing the border should both exercise restraint. These tensions don’t need violence or the demonizing of government immigration officers. The situation is complex enough. Some polls show that many people want legal immigration cut. Other polls show openness to foreigners is “essential to who we are as a nation.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board has long supported comprehensive immigration reform as the most constructive, humane path forward. It remains our goal, but until far more centrists emerge — until the demagogues and demonizers stop grandstanding — it seems a long shot.