A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a yoga class at a midtown Tucson church.
To our surprise, this church, which had previously hosted hundreds of Central American asylum-seekers over a period of weeks, was home to them again. People were cooking a big dinner in the kitchen, and 10 to 20 Central American children and adults were wandering around, playing games, passing the time.
This has been happening all over Tucson — not just at the well-known centers like the former Benedictine Monastery, home to up to 400 people passing through at any given time.
For months, leaders of Tucson charities and churches, along with volunteers and local officials, have adjusted, adapted and made things work as thousands of asylum seekers were released by American immigration officials.
They continued this Tucson tradition of pragmatic humanitarianism Friday, when dozens of local representatives met with Border Patrol officials to figure out how to better handle the logistics of moving hundreds of people through town at the uneven pace by which they arrive.
This can-do attitude toward the big migration wave of Central American families could serve the federal government. What we’ve seen instead, to a large degree, have been fear-driven policies that treat the Central Americans as a scary invasion rather than a wave of migrants whose arrival could be managed if we applied our American ingenuity to it.
What we got was a military deployment, more border wall and sending Central Americans back to Mexico to wait for a hearing. What we need is ... well, I’ll let some experts and officeholders speak. I spoke with four of them last week to get their ideas of what the federal government should be doing now. Here’s what Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Sen. Martha McSally, Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute and Patricia Vroom, the retired chief counsel in Arizona for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me we ought to do.
The institute’s biggest proposed reform is one that, Selee told me Saturday, has no great political baggage and doesn’t even need congressional approval.
Selee and other institute researchers, like former Immigration and Naturalization Service director Doris Meissner, have proposed removing asylum cases from the overloaded immigration courts.
The initial step in the asylum process is known as a credible-fear interview, which establishes whether asylum seekers meet the threshold requirements of an asylum case. Most applicants pass this step, which is handled by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer.
Then their cases are moved to the immigration courts, part of the Justice Department, which have a backlog of more than 800,000 cases. In that system, an asylum case can take years to be resolved.
Selee and the institute note that CIS hearing officers already handle the entire length of each case for a different subset of asylum cases, the so-called “affirmative” asylum cases by which people already in the country seek to stay.
These CIS hearing officers could and should handle the entire case, from credible-fear to the ultimate asylum decision, he said. There also is capacity among the officers who judge refugee cases, because so few refugees are being admitted into the country under President Trump, he added.
“This is the kind of thing reasonable people on both sides can agree to,” Selee said.
The U.S. senator from Tucson noted when we spoke Friday that many people who are being released have not actually requested asylum. They are being released because they have children with them, and there are strict time limits for how long children can be held in detention.
One of the things that would reduce the flow, she said, is reducing the incentives for children to come to the United States, on their own or with their families.
To that end, she is trying to resurrect parts of the 2017 Securing America’s Future Act, which she co-authored but which was voted down last year.
One of the sections of the rejected bill that she would like to pass now would allow children from non-contiguous countries to be returned to their home countries on a faster track.
As it stands, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act requires that children from outside Canada or Mexico go through a longer evaluation before they are returned. People are using that as a loophole, she said.
McSally would also like to loosen the requirements of the Flores Settlement to release children from detention even if they are accompanied by parents.
“Now the incentive is that if you have a kid, you’re going to be let go,” she said.
She would also raise the threshold for people to pass the credible-fear test that is the first step in the asylum process.
She noted that while the vast majority of applicants pass that threshold and are allowed to proceed with an asylum case, the vast majority of those who pass the credible-fear test are later denied asylum.
Traveling across Southern Arizona last week to Yuma, Grijalva has been focused on the local-level solutions for the communities like Tucson dealing with the flow.
He wants federal funding for the charities that have been receiving the influx, without the cities declaring an emergency, as Yuma has done. He called that a “Chicken Little” move that could be avoided with help from the federal government that is dumping people on border cities.
Over the longer term — say, a few months — Grijalva would like to revisit the Department of Homeland Security budget to adjust for the needs that have arisen in the last few months.
But for now, there are a couple of tested programs that were stopped by the Trump administration that he would like to see re-started.
One is the Family Case Management Program. This pilot project in five metro areas involved intensive help for asylum seekers living in the United States — from transportation, to social support services to legal assistance.
The people enrolled in the program had been released to the interior of the country but had a 99 percent rate of showing up for court, even though many of them ended up losing their asylum cases and being repatriated. The program even offered support for repatriation.
The Trump administration ended the program in 2017 in preference to expanding detention and the policy approach that became family separation.
The other effort Grijalva would re-start is the Central American Minors program. Begun in 2014, it allowed youths in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala to apply to join parents in the United States, if the parents were lawfully present here.
The Trump administration killed the program in 2017, soon after the president took office, without much explanation.
Patricia Vroom was the chief counsel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona until retiring in October 2016, just before Trump won the presidency.
In that job, she advocated frequently for the removal of foreigners, but she has been “horrified” by the direction taken in immigration enforcement since her retirement. And she’s confident that we can handle what’s come.
“We must have the capacity to deal with this,” Vroom said. Instead of putting billions of dollars to walls and such, she said, “we should be putting money into hiring asylum officers, immigration judges and immigration attorneys. Much of this money has already been allocated, but it hasn’t been spent.”
”You need a huge increase in personnel to process cases,” Vroom went on. “These cases are very fact-intensive. You need to give people the opportunity to tell their stories, to find the documentation they can find, to find interpreters for themselves. You need some time to pull all of that together.”
With this sort of intense application of resources, she said, the process that now often takes years could be whittled down to a matter of months.
If you combine a few of these ideas from people who know what they’re talking about, I think you just might get a handle on the situation.
It’s the pragmatic thing to do, as Tucsonans have shown, and the humanitarian thing as well.