Arthur C. Helton Lecture: Migrants and the U.S. Southern Border
Panelists discuss the humanitarian concerns facing migrants at the U.S. southern border, including how the pandemic is affecting refugees and asylum seekers, and the future of immigration under the new administration.
The Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture was established by CFR and the family of Arthur C. Helton, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who died in the August 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. The Lecture addresses pressing issues in the broad field of human rights and humanitarian concerns.
BRONNER: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting and the annual Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture. Today's lecture is on migrants and the U.S. southern border. I'm Ethan Bronner, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. Arthur C. Helton was director of Peace and Conflict Studies and senior fellow for refugee studies and preventive action here at the Council. This lecture is dedicated to Arthur's lifetime mission of serving the world's humanitarian refugee crisis. I'd like to welcome his wife, Jacquie Gilbert, and all of Arthur's friends with us here today. We have more than three hundred registered for this virtual meeting, and we'll do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the question and answer period. This is one of the most complex and, many would argue, urgent issues facing the Biden administration. We have eleven million undocumented residents inside our borders. We; have a partially built wall along the border. We have a policy since last March of sending anyone, asylum seeker or not, back across the border officially because of COVID. We have a "Remain in Mexico" program with some 66,000 asylum seekers stranded in inhumane conditions in places like Matamoros and Tijuana. The policy suspended by President Biden but not ended. We have seen 7,000 Hondurans and a migrant caravan stopped recently by Guatemalan authorities under a Trump policy requiring them to do so. We have a backlog of cases under a Trump policy of immigration. A million cases. And we have unspeakable damage from hurricanes in countries of origin, especially Honduras, where the economy was never strong. And these are countries with levels of corruption and organized crime among the world's worst. The Biden administration is talking about $4 billion to the region. And of course, this country has a need for workers, farmworkers in particular.
So we have a series of interlocking crises, and we have a brilliant panel today to help us unpack all of this. Alfredo Corchado is the author of two books and a reporter with the Dallas Morning News, whose beat is the border. Elora Mukherjee of Columbia University Law School runs an immigrant rights clinic there and has done so for some years. And Will Hurd, who until quite recently represented Southwest Texas in Congress as a Republican, and has made this a rather a signature issue. So, we'll speak, the four of us, for half an hour and then turn it over to members for questions. A reminder that it's on the record. Alfredo, I think I'd like to start with you, as a kind of on the ground person, if you could just give us a bird's eye view. Right now, what's it like on the border?
CORCHADO: Well, thank you very much, Ethan. And it's a pleasure to be back with CFR for this very important lecture series, Arthur Helton. Here on the border, the waiting very much continues for thousands of asylum seekers. I'm in El Paso, which is for us here known as the Ellis Island of the Southwest – three states, two countries, Mexico and the United States. Perhaps, the biggest place for asylum seekers is Ciudad Juarez, where more than ten thousand people, whose lives are in limbo, are waiting for the next move. There's a lot of anticipation that this may be a key week when the Biden administration announces some kind of change. Authorities here have been very careful not to get people's hopes up too high, especially during a pandemic. They don't want to see the return to a humanitarian crisis that we've seen in the last few years. The "Remain in Mexico" program currently has about ten thousand people in Juarez. That's the program where President Trump essentially outsourced the humanitarian health crisis into Juarez. So you have thousands of people in limbo. Especially at nighttime, you have all these helicopters zooming over the city. And it's a sign that people are getting desperate. They're trying to cross the border. Under title 42, there's mass deportation, rapid deportation, so that you have a revolving door, and you have a lot of people trying to get across. We hear weekly of somebody dying crossing the border. But again, this is probably the only time I've seen more of a sense of hope in the last four years on the border.
BRONNER: Elora, maybe I'll turn to you next. You've been focused so much on human rights and the refugee crisis from a legal perspective. This lecture is focused in many ways on human rights. Tell us what you think right now is the most urgent, legal, and human rights crisis along the border.
MUKHERJEE: Thank you to the Council for having me. And thank you, Ethan, for that question. I will build on Alfredo's answer. So Alfredo talked about the Title 42 order, which authorizes border patrol agents along the border to expel migrants coming into the United States, including asylum seekers, including refugees, including children, and that is the most pressing legal problem along the border right now. There are no asylum seekers, not even unaccompanied children, who are allowed to come into the United States. And there was a development on that in the last few days. So previously, in the fall, the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia had struck down the Trump administration's powers under Title 42. That order was put into place without the backing of doctors at the Center for Disease Control. It was called a Stephen Miller Special. It was the use of public health laws to push forward the nationalistic and the xenophobic agenda of the Trump White House, and a district court had struck that down. But then, on Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the Title 42 order to stand, which again closes off the southern border completely to asylum seekers, even children. And, if I were advising the Biden White House right now, I would say that the Title 42 order must be rescinded, the United States must adhere to both domestic law and international law, and, specifically, adhere to the Refugee Convention, which requires the United States and other member nations to accept refugees, even in times of public health crises. And there are ways to process asylum seekers, ways to process children without endangering the public health of Americans, and without endangering the public health of the border patrol agents, who would have direct contact with those individuals. So there are ways to do this that would comply with the law.
BRONNER: Well, thank you, Elora. Will, let me turn to you. Because of what Elora says, it's a little hard to disagree that this is a deeply inhumane situation and violates laws. On the other hand, there is perhaps a public health aspect to what's going on in this past year and whether or not Title 42 was an excuse or not. You could argue that the United States, at a time of this kind of crisis, needs to seal its borders as best it can. What do you think of what she just said? Do you think she's 100 percent right, and we just cancel it and move forward, or is there something in between we could do?
HURD: Well, I think we should follow domestic and international law on this issue. First and foremost, right. Not all people that are seeking asylum meet the criteria of asylum seekers, right. So ultimately, my fear is those that are abusing the system. And what percentage of that is, I don't know. My esteemed panelists probably have a better sense of that than I do. But that gets in the way of the folks that have a reason to apply for asylum. But this is what we're talking about. The symptoms of a broader problem. And those root causes have never been addressed. And those root causes are violence, lack of economic opportunity, and extreme poverty in the northern triangle. And so, as you said in your introductory remarks, Ethan, President Biden's talking about a $4 billion. Whatever the amount is, it needs to be a long-term commitment. I think it needs to be at least a ten-year commitment so that we show that there is support to the region. And for some of my colleagues or former colleagues, that's too expensive. Well, it's cheaper to solve the problem when it doesn't reach our shores, right? And so, if we can address those root causes in that region, we have got to work with our Mexican colleagues and allies. In order to address this, the U.S. needs to have an economic national security policy as well. Every year the administration produces a military strategy. You're supposed to produce a national security strategy. Trump did it once. I think President Obama did it three or four times. In those national security strategies, they should address our economic tools. But usually, you have maybe a page and a half of suggestions. And so, Ambassador Jacobson, who's just been appointed, is going to have her hands full. But we also need a special envoy to the northern triangle that can cooperate with Ambassador Jacobson in order to work on a long-term regional solution to these issues and root causes. So that's where we go.
BRONNER: So I think the key adjective you use now is long-term, and I think that it's clear that, to help fix the northern triangle economies and societies in ways in which people will not want to leave, but stay and be productive, is not a one to four - year, it's a ten or twenty-year process. But meanwhile, the world doesn't stand still. And so we have to deal with it because, on the one hand, President Trump did create an enormous amount of cruelty. On the other hand, it did slow things down and sent a message. Is there any value in the message he sent?
HURD: Well, the ends don't justify the means, right? And we sometimes forget that there should be consequences to negative behavior. Because, if illegal behavior continues, if there's no consequences to it, you'll see it continue to be increased. But snatching children from their mother's hands is not the way you administer Congress. And so, when I went down, I'm drawing a blank on when it was, I went into Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador at kind of the height of the crisis, probably a year and a half ago, or a year ago, and in trying to understand their side and how they were addressing this. So they have these entities called Welcome Centers. So anybody that gets deported back to their country goes to one location, and the government's trying to help them address different issues. And one of the things that I thought was fascinating was when I asked, how many people do you not help get placed back with a family member or a supportive, safe environment. In El Salvador, the number was nine, like literally eight or nine out of tens of thousands of people in that period of time that we were looking at. And so, some of these governments have the ability to make sure that the folks that have fled their country are put back in situations that are, I don't know what the right adjective would be, but better. It's an improved security environment than what they had originally fled. So, to address the current problem, we're going to need a mix of tools. But however, we have to have the long-term solution in mind because the decisions we make now could potentially impact or prevent a long-term solution from happening.
BRONNER: Of course.
Alfredo, I want to ask you because of your own personal story of crossing the border. This is your world, and this is your emotional life, as well as your professional life, this whole story. And, on the one hand, there are millions of people whom we can help. On the other hand, this is a country, the United States, which has its own set of crises. And there is a strong sense in this country that we mustn't have open borders. Now, no one here is talking about open borders. But there is a problem in a way, which if you're too welcoming, too many people will come and they are, we all know, and Elora can talk about this, the difference between truly a refugee status, or life is awful, and it will be better there. And those aren't the exact same thing. So talk for a few minutes, if you want, about how you view the sort of competing forces at work here.
CORCHADO: Well, as a reporter and as a border resident, I've never heard of anyone in the region talk about an open border. I think if anyone truly wants security on the border, it's the people who live on the border. We want that. We want to know who comes in and who comes out. But there's got to be a humanitarian way of doing this. And you talked about our responsibility to the northern triangle. I think it's in the best interests of the U.S. national security to try to, as Congressman Hurd said, get to the root problem of the issue and to try not to send mixed messages to migrants from Central America. I remember being in Guatemala one time, and I had my press credentials, I said, a correspondent for The Dallas Morning News. But I made the mistake of saying in Spanish, I'm coming from El Paso. And immediately, the people surrounded me and essentially tried to kick me out of town because they said, you're one of these smugglers trying to come in and take our people away and take advantage of them. I got the sense last week talking to refugees, asylum seekers in Matamoros as I was interviewing them, that they are already being approached by the smugglers who are saying that this situation may get worse before it gets better. Let us help you cross the border. In fact, at one point, this smuggler said, I think it's time for you to go; the lookouts are here, the "halcones" are here. I'm talking to many migrants. It's the hardest thing for an immigrant, I think, to leave home. I think if there were some way of bringing back some kind of guest worker program, and take care of the abuse problem and manage it better. My father was a guest worker. The reason I'm here today is that he came as a guest worker and, through his work, he was able to legalize the entire family. So when I talk to migrants who have their children with them, it's not a decision they make likely. They like to see other options, a more humanitarian way of approaching this whole thing.
BRONNER: I'm certain that you're right, that nobody leaves home and takes a dangerous trip like this lightly. There's no doubt about that. But when you talk about a guest worker program, this would be a very different thing. Just in promising them the possibility of settling in the United States, and you think that many of the people would be okay with that?
CORCHADO: I know that in my case, my father was okay with that. But I think he also called his employers bluff. They were concerned that he would go back and one day may not return. And so he essentially said, why don't you legalize me and legalize my entire family? Not that we wanted to come to the United States. But that was a way for the employer to have him full- time, not six months, not seven months. But no, I think once the families come to the United States, it becomes a whole different dynamic.
BRONNER: What do you think about the idea of focusing more on temporary worker visas? Would it solve some of the issues that you are focused on? Elora, did you hear me?
MUKHERJEE: Yes. Can you hear me?
BRONNER: For some reason, I'm not seeing you, but I hear you. You keep freezing for some reason.
MUKHERJEE: Maybe you should go to someone else and come back to me.
BRONNER: Okay. Sure. That's fine.
HURD: Can I jump up on that, please? So part of this process is an issue of volume. So some of the people that are coming illegally are seeking a better life. And they think that this is the only way to do it because the opportunities to get into a guest-worker program or to come here legally is incredibly difficult. If you streamline our legal immigration process, we have it based on need, but even now, when so many Americans are dealing with COVID, there are still industries that are looking for people and having a hard time filling positions. And in this day and age, we should be able to process visas based on need a lot quicker. Hospitality in Texas needs some this month. We should be able to search too that if Arizona needs something else in a search another month, we should be able to search to be able to do that. So the broader solution to all this, those root causes I talked about earlier, we have to streamline legal immigration. And then we have to go after the infrastructure that is moving people and taking advantage of people and taking their money to go on this perilous couple-of-thousand mile journey. And one of the most frustrating things for me was, again, at the height of this, I started on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I'm a former CIA officer. I said, Let me see all the finished intelligence. Zero. Then I said, Let me see the raw intelligence. This is a case like what I used to do, typing away a report—sending it. Nothing. This is not like the human kingpin smugglers. They're having to replicate their activity. They're not like terrorists who try to do one thing once. And so the fact that we're not using our intelligence resources to dismantle some of this infrastructure that is moving the folks that are coming here illegally, and taking advantage of these folks, is another problem as well.
BRONNER: Why don't you stay with that for one second? Why is that? What is your explanation for that?
HURD: This is a sophisticated audience. So, it's the NIPF, the National Intelligence Priority Framework. That is how the administration views intelligence issues and prioritizes them. Countering human smuggling is not even in the top five. I'm even counting some of the narcos, and not even in the top area. So if we're not using our resources to go after the drug trafficking organizations or the criminal enterprises, which is contributing to those root causes, which is some of the violence that's been perpetrated on women and children, so we're not using all of our tools in our toolkit. Now, as a former intelligence officer, everything looks like intelligence. A problem for me. But this is something we should collect on. And we should make sure that all of our intelligence resources are being driven to help address some of these issues.
BRONNER: Now, that sounds like a pretty straightforward one piece of the puzzle that needs to be done. Yes, indeed. Elora. I'm hoping you're back online.
MUKHERJEE: My internet problem is fixed. Ethan,
BRONNER: There we go. You know, I think it's the snowstorm in New York. For those of you not in the New York area, you should be aware, we're suffering here (laughs). So, Elora, talk about that, the legal, moral question of temporary work visas as opposed to the system now.
MUKHERJEE: So temporary work visas could be part of a solution there. The overwhelming majority of the people I talk with and who I represent don't want to come to the United States. I echo both what Alfredo said and what Representative Hurd said about people not wanting to leave their homes, and regional solutions being a major part of any comprehensive solution to the migration problems. But with a temporary worker program, I would want to ensure that temporary workers, farmworkers, others who come into the United States aren't being exploited. So there need to be significant protections for these workers so that they feel empowered to both have protection under state law and federal law to ensure humane work conditions and protections from exploitation, which can so easily happen in these situations. I also think that with a guest worker program, there should be some recognition of the enormous sacrifices that guest workers are making. And there should also be a path offered to citizenship for guest workers.
BRONNER: When you say the sacrifices, what do you mean by that? What are the sacrifices that they're making?
MUKHERJEE: The backbreaking work in the fields in the heat, working in very dangerous conditions, for example, in meatpacking factories, where people's fingers, limbs literally are severed off in the pandemic. As we know, undocumented workers have made enormous sacrifices to keep our food supply chains going at enormous risk to themselves. So many undocumented workers working in both the fields and in factories have gotten sick and died of COVID-19. And they put not just themselves at risk, but their family members and their communities. And these are among the people in American society who are doing the hardest work so that the rest of us can live our lives with some degree of comfort, and those sacrifices should be recognized.
BRONNER: You're interested in immigration legal questions, not in labor laws. What you say is true, but many Americans are also suffering in the same way, and we don't want special protection for the undocumented. We just want to have good fair working conditions. And the people who come to do a temporary job should not suffer more than anyone else should.
MUKHERJEE: Right. So if someone who's coming as part of the temporary work program recognizes that there's an unsafe working condition and wants to report their employers for that violation, they shouldn't then face the consequences of deportation and being expelled from a temporary worker program.
BRONNER: Right. That makes sense. Well, I have a question for you about this. Do you think that allowing this migration lowers the wages of people who are already here?
HURD: I haven't seen any evidence that suggests that that's the case. Because, as I've said, even when the unemployment rate was at 4 percent, the lowest it had been in a really long time, the number of Help Wanted signs that you saw in basically every industry in the south and west Texas were pretty dramatic. Even now, with unemployment as high as it is, those Help Wanted signs are still there. So we can do this in a market-based way. One of the things that we should have with a guest worker program is the ability of that individual to transfer that visa to another job place. One of the reasons is that if you're able to, if you don't like the situation you're in, most of us get the chance to say, Hey, I'm going to take my skills somewhere else. And having that locked into a particular employer – now, this is tricky in a way that you can see legislation passed, but that's one way you can address this issue of folks that are coming here temporarily being potentially abused by an employer.
CORCHADO: Hey, Ethan, if I could just add, in the San Joaquin Valley, for example, ranchers are having such a hard time finding workers, American workers. They've actually increased the wages, and in some places, at $50 an hour. I've heard of stories where it's up to more than $20 an hour. The workforce, primarily Mexican and Central Americans, they're aging. I think the average age right now is more than forty. But they were telling me, we increase the wages, we try to get the wages, sometimes we get Americans, but they don't go beyond noon, or they say we'll see you tomorrow and they don't show up. And that's a real concern among them. What's going to happen to the food supply going forward, especially during the coronavirus crisis? You need that food supply. So it's a real concern among some of these ranchers in California in the meatpacking industry,
BRONNER: For sure. We're going to turn to the members in one minute, but I want to ask you, Alfredo, one other thing. While many things in the Trump administration, there's a kind of a visceral sense that it was handled inhumanely and improperly. Is it not also the case that our migration and border policy has been relatively catastrophic for many years? In other words, it's not only the Trump administration's fault. There's a whole series of things going on that make a sound policy very, very hard to come by. Is that a fair thing to say?
CORCHADO: It's been going on since the Bush years, the Obama years. They get so close, and then they just don't come together. But particularly during the Trump administration. I think what really makes border residents concerned and fearful is the language that was used during the Trump administration, the inflammatory language that led to the August 19 massacre at Walmart, where you have a young man from North Texas drive 700 miles and 10 hours to El Paso to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas. So that's why whenever we hear the words open borders and that people on the border want open borders, I mean, words really have consequences. And I think the aggravation during the inauguration of President Biden, that evening, you could kind of sense the nervousness among mayors that, oh my god, here we go again, another humanitarian crisis. What is this going to do to the militias? Will they use the border now as a place to operate?
HURD: Ethan, if I can add to that, unfortunately, this is probably the number one issue that both sides like to use as a political bludgeon against the other. And, unfortunately, that had existed when Republicans were in power and when Democrats were in power, and it gets us away from actually solving a problem. A congress also negotiates with subtraction rather than addition. They say here are a hundred things I want. You're not going to get those hundred things. They sort of get whittled down to twenty. And then you've lost all those other elements, instead of saying, here are the five things I want, and building up to, okay, those five things for me equal these seven things, and then you can build a plan that way, that's how you negotiate in the real world. I wish Congress would negotiate a little bit more like that. But also, the extreme rhetoric prevents people from having a nuanced position. So when you say defund ICE, people view that as open borders. Then if you believe that family separation is terrible, if you don't start your conversation by saying, I'm against defunding ICE, the other side may take whatever you say as an acceptance of that extreme position. And so these extreme positions that get out there make it difficult for a more nuanced perspective on a topic that for twenty or thirty years has been an incredible political hot potato.
BRONNER: It makes a lot of sense what you're saying. And we see it across a whole range of fields where it's just that people are just listening for it. Is there a buzzword that you're going to touch on? That makes me think you're my enemy. And then there's nothing further to talk about. It doesn't sound like it was much fun in Congress for you. I understand. We're going to turn to the members now for their questions, please. We'll take our first question from John Negroponte.
Q: Thank you very much for the very interesting discussion. I think I have an answer for Congressman Hurd on this National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which I had a chance to work on. In a number of iterations in my career, I think there was always this sort of gray zone between domestic and foreign intelligence. And I think foreign intelligence officers had difficulty wrapping their arms around a lot of these different border or domestic issues. I just want to say, before asking a question, that I don't think any other OECD or advanced country in this world has as disorderly a border as the United States border with Mexico. It is really sort of a disgrace to civilization. And, at some point, we've just got to get it in better order. And obviously, they're multifaceted elements to this whole thing: temporary work, regional solutions, remittances, and so forth, improvements to the United States Marine Corps (USMC) that could perhaps contribute to the betterment of lives on both sides of the border, such as reciprocal availability of health and social security benefits, and so forth. But my specific question is to Mexico and what you see as the prospects for the Biden administration's cooperation with Mexico on this whole migratory issue at this particular point in time. Thank you.
BRONNER: Alfredo, maybe you want to start.
CORCHADO: I think that's a fascinating question and one we haven't really talked about. We have to remember the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and the reason we have a "Remain in Mexico" was because President Trump threatened them with shutting down the border, raising tariffs, et cetera. Since Mr. Trump is no longer there, it'll be interesting. And in a time when President Lopez Obrador is now talking about ending security cooperation with the United States, it'll be interesting to see what happens with programs like "Remain in Mexico." Will Mexico, and to what extent, help the United States with the migration crisis? That's going to be something really fascinating to watch the Biden administration and the Lopez Obrador administration, and, as congressman Hurd said earlier, Roberta Jacobson, who was a UN ambassador in Mexico and knew Mexico really well. And that's something that I'm watching with much fascination in the weeks and months to come.
BRONNER: Will, do you want to say anything about this? Because I'm just going to say one thing, which is that not so long ago, a few months ago, the United States tried to indict a former defense minister of Mexico, threatened with what it said was very clear evidence of serious involvement with drug traffickers. And the Mexican government, of course, fought it and eventually brought him home and declared the whole thing to be nonsense. So, when you talk about the need for better intelligence, and Mr. Negroponte points out, these are complicated cross- border issues. This is a very good example.
HURD: In my time in the national security space, there were a few things I learned. One is always to listen to Ambassador Negroponte.
BRONNER: Yeah, in journalism too.
HURD: That's point one. Point two. So on the ground, cooperation between border patrol agents and whichever entity they were cooperating with, and the government of Mexico, has been unprecedented. That's not my word. That is the word that has been used by folks at all levels of federal law enforcement. President Lopez Obrador came into power saying that he was going to clean the country up. And so security and the rule of law are important to his legacy and his ability to get anything done in his remaining time, and whether his party continues to have any influence in the direction of the country. And so you know, that "The remain in place" in some of these Mexican cities caused a lot of pushback against the governors, against the central government. And because there was some concern about the folks that were there, we're getting more resources and more support than some of the less fortunate in those communities. So that's the tension there. At the end of the day, President Lopez Obrador recognized, like us, that we have to address those root causes. And they've put a significant amount of money aside to help and to work with the northern triangle as well. So I think this is an opportunity for them to cooperate. But the one place where there is going to be friction is what I call the Union Democrats, and the influence that group is going to have on this administration may cause some frictions between the broader bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.
BRONNER: Just to elaborate for one second on that, and we'll take the next question. What do you mean?
HURD: Look, I think NAFTA and NAFTA 2.0, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), have been good things for our country. It's increased our U.S., Mexico, and Canadian economies by 300 percent. U.S., Mexico, Canada, we build things together. However, the biggest opponent of NAFTA and also USMCA has been that part of the Democratic Party that has questioned whether the labor laws are being enforced appropriately within Mexico. And that level of criticism is something that President Lopez Obrador will unlikely tolerate and will also cause friction. So with an increase of that voice and not having an administration that counters him the way the Trump administration did, I think you're going to see more friction.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Luisa del Rosal.
Q: Thank you so much. My name is Luisa del Rosal with the SMU Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center here in Dallas, Texas. I was really struck, Congressman Hurd, and you know this because I've met you and you're fabulous, about this long-term solution. We talk a lot here about this administration and that administration. But isn't it really the fact that we haven't been able to get something through Congress to really provide long-term solutions for either refugees or asylum seekers? Aid packages? That creates the instability? Because come one new administration, the policy changes, the rhetoric changes. So it's really not long term. So how do we find the congressional will? How do we, as citizens, really push for change that's long-lasting if there hasn't been the congressional will? That just doesn't happen.
HURD: Agree. I think the second thing that I've learned in my time in Congress is when it comes to immigration policy, look to y'all and what y'all are doing at SMU on advocating a reasonable and rational approach. So governing by executive order creates the drama that we're in now. This started back under, before probably George H.W. Bush coming to the forefront. The way we do appropriations or the inability to do longer-term appropriations is difficult. That's why I think that any program to address the acute problems at the border right now is an opportunity to provide that long-term funding stream that's necessary. The top-line figure matters, but the consistency of the support is probably more important. I think we have to look at the errors of the Merida Initiative. And is that an example that we could use when it comes to the northern triangle or not? I don't know the answers. I haven't studied it enough. But a deal, and I can go back to a piece of legislation I introduced, the U.S.A. act with Pete Aguilar- it was to address Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It was to address border security; it was also to address these long-term problems in the northern triangle. And another issue that I'm sure Elora can talk about is the lack of judicial infrastructure to handle some of these cases. And how do you address the backlog? Those are four areas where I think we can come to some kind of agreement because I've seen that already happen. And that's a narrow fix in the short term in order to build momentum on some of the other issues.
BRONNER: Elora, do you want to speak a little bit about that? The question of the legal infrastructure to get through these cases, which are so severely backlogged.
MUKHERJEE: There is an enormous backlog just to echo what my co-panelists have already said. In the last year of the Obama administration, that backlog was about 800,000 cases. It has ballooned now to about 1.3 million cases backlogged in the immigration courts. That doesn't count the backlog before the asylum office. It doesn't count the backlog before the Board of Immigration Appeals or before the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals. Our immigration system is broken. And there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform to address the needs of the legal system, but also the needs of the 11 million or so undocumented people within our borders and the 660,000 plus people who are in the "Remain in Mexico" program. We need sweeping changes. And Luisa, I share your concerns. I'm not sure how to get this through Congress.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Dee Smith.
Q: Thank you very much. CEO of Strategic Insight Group and Board Chair of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and Benson Library at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the problems that I think is most acute in terms of addressing these root causes is the experience that we have had in the past. When we do make efforts to put in people and create systems within the northern triangle countries, those things make a huge difference as long as the people are there doing them. But once they leave, and this is true, as I understand it on both a very local basis and on a regional, national basis, things revert to the way they were given the difficulty of institutionalizing these kinds of processes that can change things and make a difference. How do we go about doing a better job than what we have done in the past?
BRONNER: So just to make clear, you're saying that we put individuals in place, and then they leave because they move on to other jobs and somehow, with them go the programs as well? Is that what you're saying?
SMITH: That's my understanding. Yes. And particularly in all the northern triangle countries where this has been attempted. You would put an office in a city or regional capital, what have you, and start to make a real difference, and then either the money runs out or, for one reason or another, the program is terminated, and things just revert to what they were.
BRONNER: So I think I'll ask Will because you have spoken in the past about a marshal project for this region. And it sounds like these points are right in your wheelhouse of what you're thinking about?
HURD: The problem comes with the question, what is the strategy? What is OPEX's role in all this? What is USAID doing? What is IML within the State Department focused on? The Organization of American States? Everybody has their little piece, and they're all trying to work towards this, but it does not fit within a framework or even a broad strategy. And so that's why this is dependent on any individual that is on the ground. So let's step back. I said earlier that we have a national defense strategy. That national defense strategy goes through a significant planning process. And regardless of who the head of the administration is, that doesn't change too much. We know what the Air Force is going to do. We know what the Marines are going to do. We need that similar level of planning when it comes to using the economic tools within our toolkit, and not just those that belong to the federal government. The number of philanthropic organizations that are involved in trying to address these issues is pretty significant. And we don't have an organizing architecture. And we also need to give our ambassadors more power. I think, starting under President Clinton's administration, and this has continued, a lot of decisions are being made at the White House rather than with the country team on the ground. We need to empower our ambassadors so they can move quickly. They are the ones that have the understanding on the ground and should be a focal point on how to coordinate all those efforts.
BRONNER: Yeah, it makes sense. There's also the question of, when we send people back and demand that they seek asylum, we sort of set up an office in those countries. And that started under Obama, but I think it ended under Trump. So I don't know whether it's going to get revived again or not. Alfredo, do you want to say anything about this, or should we move to the next one?
CORCHADO: I would just remind everyone, Ethan, that this is a long, long, long-term problem. If we look at a year later, the pandemic and the devastating hurricanes in Central America have created such a problem. You're going to see migration, poverty, violence; it will be with us for many, many years to come. So you got to think of a long-term solution.
BRONNER: It's absolutely true. Of course, these hurricanes, which are just so devastating, sort of make mincemeat of our polite discussion about policy. If people's homes and towns are destroyed, they will walk in the hopes of something better for themselves and their children.
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Jane Olsen.
Q: Good morning, and thanks to this excellent panel. I'm the former board chair of Human Rights Watch. And you mentioned the very important need to address conditions that the migrants are fleeing from their country of origin. I think we also need to highlight the humanitarian disaster that's happening in the border towns in Mexico. I've spent time in Tijuana with the Women's Refugee Commission. And even before the "Remain in Mexico" order conditions, they're just horrendous, and migrants are so vulnerable to trafficking and other tremendous abuse. So I think we need to really focus on not just the philanthropic community but also the government of the United States and on helping provide security and support to those border towns.
BRONNER: Thank you, Jane. This is a very powerful important point. Anyone who's been down there is aware, and, actually, Elora, except for during COVID, you've been able to bring classes of law students down. Do you want to talk for a minute about that and then Alfredo, perhaps?
MUKHERJEE: Sure, thank you, Jane, for raising that really important point. I've also traveled with my students to Juarez and Tijuana in an effort to provide legal services to asylum seekers stranded there by "Remain in Mexico." And even before the "Remain in Mexico" policy went into effect, the conditions in these border refugee camps were often squalid. I have walked through refugee camps where there is no running water, where refugee mothers and children are preyed upon by traffickers. I've talked with children who've been abducted and held for ransom. I've talked with families who've been abducted and held for ransom. Reports by non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch have documented more than 1,000, I think 1,300 plus, instances of murders, rapes, kidnappings of asylum seekers, including children who are subjected to these really horrific conditions along the U.S. southern border. And the U.S. government is largely responsible for creating the conditions along these border towns, and "Remain in Mexico" has made the situation worse. But even before "Remain in Mexico," the conditions have been extremely dangerous for migrants, especially female asylum seekers and children. And we need to think hard and act in an effort to protect these very vulnerable populations. Part of the answer is, I think, reinvesting in programs like the Central American Minors Program, which during the Obama years allowed children to apply for protection in the United States while still in the northern triangle. So they weren't making these dangerous journeys north, often on their own without guardians or parents to care for them. I'm glad you raised this very important issue. Thank you, Jane.
BRONNER: Alfredo, do you think what Elora said was correct and fair, that it's the United States' responsibility and fault that these conditions in Mexican towns and in the "Remain in Mexico" areas are so terrible? Is that fair?
CORCHADO: I think it's very fair. I think we often speak in terms of numbers, but these are real human beings. To smugglers, they're more like human cargo. And we've seen the consequences—the nineteen Guatemalans that were killed last week along the Texas-Mexico border, the massacres in San Fernando. Elora said something that really resonated, especially the women, the children, women who are victims of rape abuse. When I was interviewing these children last week, and ten days ago in Matamoros, I was caught by the kids wearing three pieces of clothing because it was so cold. And this goes on and on. As reporters, we've got to put the human face. We're talking about human beings here.
BRONNER: Agreed entirely,
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Delphine Schrank.
Q: Hi, thank you so much. I'm an independent journalist who spends an awful lot of time in Central America and Mexico. I'm in Mexico now. I just was for two months in Honduras during the hurricanes. And afterward, it actually follows up on something you just mentioned, Elora. My question might seem naive, given the destruction of the refugee program and that, but it seems so evident to me. I meet all the time people in Honduras who are in situations of enormous peril, and I put them in touch directly with the only organization there that helps people in peril find new homes, the Norwegian Refugee Council. And they need asylum. So what can they do then? Either get killed, or they then take the enormous, perilous journey through Mexico and everything you've been describing? So is there a way, has there been any thought of creating a much more systematic way in which people can ask for asylum or get refugee status while in the northern triangle? Because I know people in that situation right now that are literally in hiding in Honduras, and they can get killed any minute.
BRONNER: Elora, talk to us because there is this whole question of someone on site right in the country from this country, taking those applications in theory.
MUKHERJEE: Delphine, thank you so much for raising that important set of questions. There is a myth and misunderstanding in American public life. And that is that a person can seek asylum from their home country. That is not true. A person can only seek asylum if they first set foot in the United States. So other than the Central American Minors Program, which in the Obama years allowed for limited processing of children from Central America directly into the United States, asylum seekers, generally adult asylum seekers, cannot benefit from that program as it is currently in place. There is also refugee processing run by the Department of State, as many of you on this call know. But that program has been both decimated over the last four years, such that it is almost no longer operating at all. But also, that program has not focused on refugees from the northern triangle. And I think there are really big questions of why. And as the refugee program is rebuilt, and hopefully has more resources poured into it and better staff dedicated to it, can we, as a nation, expand the refugee program to cover asylum seekers, refugees from the northern triangle to prevent them from taking these perilous journeys?
STAFF: We'll take our next question from Steve Kaplan.
Q: Good morning. I this Steve Kaplan. I was with the intelligence community for four decades and was blessed to be able to have as a boss John Negroponte for several years. The question that I have relates to policy, which in the forty years, I had very little to do with, rightly so. Most Americans, it seems to me, from what I read, are deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation. That's been the larger part of the discussion here. But they're also deeply interested in the subject of what's called secure borders. What that means, of course, is the huge policy issue. It seems to me that what's going to be happening until we have new laws is we will have sympathetic and unsympathetic administrations. Right now, the former. Nobody knows in four years. And what happens in two years with a new Congress, no one can really say. My question is, do you expect the new law to be able to be passed in the next two years? And, if such a law were passed that would deal with this issue, I don't want to use the word solve, but deal with the issue that is new immigration law; what would be the three or four headline elements that could get national support? Or at least congressional majorities? Or don't you expect that to be possible? Thank you.
BRONNER: Great questions. Steve, I think we'll ask Will. They're trying quite hard in Congress on this question. Will.
HURD: So my dad taught me to have a PMA – a positive mental attitude. So can something get past? Yes. But it's going to have to be narrow. This notion that we're going to do comprehensive immigration reform, even in the unified Democratic government, is not possible. And then, the example I use is the DREAM Act. President Obama was unable to get the DREAM Act passed when he had all levels of government because six democratic senators voted against it. He had enough republicans that he could have passed this if all Democrats were behind them. They weren't. Two of those senators are still in place. From my conversations, there are four elements that any kind of immigration can deal with. DACA is one of those, there's that. DACA is a 75 percent approval rating amongst Republican primary voters as well. This is something that we can pair with a potential guest worker program and the issue of economic support to the region. This is a problem, the root causes we've been talking about here today. And then a reformation of the judicial immigration laws, additional support, probably not the kind of support that you need in order to really solve this problem or hit that backlog, but it's better than nothing. I think those are the elements that could pass. Now you may have, under that guest worker, some unique things to deal with, with agricultural workers specifically. There's probably going to be some H-1B, that's just a high tech worker issue that you do in order to build a coalition of people to potentially pass this. So getting something passed that can actually get signed into law. And the tricky part is obviously the Senate and trying to find something with sixty votes. But those elements that I just described, in the six years I've been working on this issue, those elements that I think are what I would call the minimum viable product, the minimum thing that we could potentially get passed. But also, when you talk about the security of the border and secure border, everybody agrees, and border security is public safety along the border, and Alfredo addressed that. This concept of what I call the smart wall, knowing everything that's going back and forth across our borders, is completely doable. Every mile of the border is different. We have an assessment of the kind of tools that are needed, and there is support for those kinds of concepts in Congress that could get done in appropriations bills. And with Democrats having the opportunity to use reconciliation twice, I think you're going to see some of those elements, when it comes to border security, in a way that makes sense and getting passed and signed into law.
BRONNER: That's terrific. Here at the Council on Foreign Relations, ending on time is similar to a sort of religious edict, so we're going to wrap it up here. And I think everyone agrees that we've had three really terrific panelists. So thank you all very much.