Is U.S. Accession to the Mexico-UNHCR 'Caravan' Plan a Long-Term Mistake?

By Dan Cadman on October 22, 2018

I like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He seems pretty much like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, which in itself is refreshing amid the halls of power in Washington. But his recent statement in Mexico City in a press conference after a meeting with Mexican officials about illegal immigration was a statement of the obvious: "We are quickly reaching a point which appears to be a moment of crisis," he said.

In fact, I should think that the moment of crisis arrived quite some time ago. Even in a Trump administration whose approach to immigration matters is in such stark contrast to that of the Obama White House, senior officials have either been slow to acknowledge it, or perhaps simply loath to accept it. The number of migrant family groups — almost exclusively consisting of Central Americans tramping through Mexico to enter illegally — is at epic levels, and has been extraordinarily high since at least 2014. The high-water mark simply keeps getting higher.

Immigration matters have become such a flashpoint within the White House that it was recently reported that National Security Advisor John Bolton got into a shouting match with Chief of Staff (and former Homeland Security Secretary) John Kelly over the performance of that department under the auspices of his protégé and successor to the position, Kirstjen Nielsen.

This should not be a surprise. Nielsen, like her boss, is known to be tepid about vigorous enforcement efforts, and so in many ways is a duck out of water among many within the administration where immigration policy is concerned. Within the department, she has acted as a breakwater in ensuring a go-slow approach to many of the enforcement initiatives proposed by the White House or its more enforcement-minded advocates, which one imagines is exactly why Kelly put her there. In short, she may not be the best fit for the job, and one suspects that it is only Kelly's influence that has protected Nielsen from the president's well-known mercurial temper.

The problem is that, absent more vigorous measures the likes of which Nielsen may be reluctant to direct, our border will remain a sponge soaking up large numbers of illegal crossers who are constantly and consistently dripping onto the U.S. side of the frontier and dispersing for lack of detention space, leading to a "catch-and-release" process that only encourages more to come.

They are further encouraged by the flawed laws, policies, and practices governing U.S. asylum and "credible fear" (see here and here) that have led to huge backlogs within the immigration courts — nearly 750,000 at last count. That in turn has led to a virtual guarantee that aliens awaiting their long-delayed day in court can apply for work permits — a significant compounding of the pull factors that draw aliens northward.

This time around — given the publicity surrounding the most recent "caravan" of aliens heading north and President Trump's clear statements that he might call up military resources, cut off foreign aid, and forego a trade treaty if something isn't done — Mexico, for once, heeded the warning signs and directed its federal police and immigration authorities to impede movement of these individuals into or through its territory.

In the end, that may or may not allay the possibility of a large accumulation of illegal crossers massing on our shared border, depending on whether the trekkers are successful in evading Mexican authorities. Mexico, probably recognizing this, also announced that it met with, and will be seeking help from, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mexico asked the UNHCR for help in screening these migrants to determine which among them have legitimate claims to asylum, and which are simply economic migrants who should be repatriated to their home countries. The United States has indicated its support for this plan.

While it sounds on the surface like a sound proposal, it's worth remembering that, even as our government goes back to first principles in deciding what constitutes a legitimate asylum claim (see here and here), UHNCR is moving in the opposite direction, developing ever-more-expansive notions about who should be allowed shelter under the refugee/asylee umbrella. Further, they speak about the need for new pathways to accommodate individuals who don't qualify for protection under existing domestic or international laws, describing them as "complementary paths such as humanitarian visas, family reunion, and scholarships could help bridge the gaps in terms of needs."

In other words, UNHCR hopes to shape the agenda of international migration by encouraging resettlement of individuals whether or not they actually fit within the mandate of UNHCR's charter, the international Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its undergirding treaty history, known as the Travaux Preparatoires. In fact, some of this "new thinking" can be found in the nearly final and comprehensive new Global Compact on Refugees being aggressively pushed by UNHCR.

But why should we care, if all of this is being undertaken in a negotiation between Mexico and UNHCR? Because it will directly affect us.

What has not been broadcast quite so publicly as the daily progress of the caravan, and the tense talks among and between the United States, Mexico, and the involved Central American countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), is that apparently a part of the "plan" for resolving this caravan crisis via UNHCR decision-making is to distribute those who get a thumbs-up among and between various countries, including the United States.

If this comes to pass, we not only forego our right to interview and make decisions about whether these persons meet our legal definition of refugee or asylee, we are expected to go along with a burden-sharing agreement reminiscent of the kind of migrant quota apportioning that the European Union has tried to impose on its member states. And many of those states rebelled at being obliged to surrender their sovereignty to international bureaucrats who can afford to espouse lofty ideas while not actually having to deal with the social, economic, or security consequences of such apportionment schemes (see here and here).

This will have long-term repercussions that echo far beyond today's caravan. It is more evidence of our apparent willingness to surrender to others the right to decide who lives within our borders. Whether on a large scale or small, this is always a bad idea. Will we be stuck with the precedent set by this plan when the next "caravan" is formed?

And will we also once again be completely unprepared because, once this "crisis" has been put out of sight and out of mind, no one in a position of governmental authority and leadership will want to confront the still-unresolved problems that led to its formation in the first place? What about the constant daily drip, drip, drip of caught-and-released illegal border-crossers who aren't part of any caravan, that will still be continuing at unprecedented levels?

Caravans may be great for news cycles and political drama, but they don't constitute a significant portion of the huge problem at our southern border. It is way past time for our members of Congress and our president to act in substantive, meaningful ways to address the crisis that Mike Pompeo publicly alluded to. Caravan plan or not, that crisis will still exist.