Safe 3rd Countries: Short-Term Effectiveness

Since Donald Trump took office, the practice known as “catch and release” in the United States has received special attention. The term, used politically, is the practice of releasing migrants captured at the border while they await their judicial hearing instead of detaining or expelling them immediately. Vulnerable people who do not pose a threat (like minors) and those who claim a fear of returning to their countries, in other words, asylum seekers, benefit from it. Catch and release is the result of a conglomeration of laws, jurisprudence and presidential executive actions, both Republican and Democrat in recent decades. The U.S. government has identified the practice as the biggest cause of the immigration increase in the current decade. And perhaps it is part of the reason. The news that people manage to avoid deportation by claiming a fear of returning to their country when they surrender to border patrol has made its way to every corner of Central America. Vox populi, as they say.

The United States has identified catch and release as a problem. First, it creates what it considers to be a perverse incentive that increases the number of people who want to attempt the journey. The coyotes then charge a lower price, and as a result, more people have access to making the trip. It is a vicious cycle. The cost has dropped since coyotes now take migrants only as far as the northern Mexican border, saving the need to circumvent American security. Upon crossing, each migrant surrenders to the first American border guard and claims asylum. That is, they are no longer captured, but rescued. Second, it is a problem that has saturated the federal judicial system. As more asylum seekers have arrived, it has become overloaded. The worst that the migrants then face is to live about four or five years in the U.S. until their hearing date arrives. Enough time for the effort to be worth it.

Breaking the incentive presented by catch and release is not a simple task for the United States. It requires a joint effort by the country’s three branches of government to repair the immigration system, a system that both parties recognize is broken, but whose resolution is caught in the middle of political and electoral interests and strategies.

This is where the safe third country agreements come in. As absurd as they may seem, these agreements clearly continue America’s plan and vision regarding migration from Central America over the last eight years, which is deterrence. Only this time, the agreements do not have draconian provisions such as torturous conditions in detention centers or the baseness of separating minors from their parents. Instead, the agreements follow a strategy that circumvents the commitment to keep asylum seekers in their country while they wait for their hearings.

Of course, Trump celebrates this as a victory. Even Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan boasts that border apprehensions have decreased by 86% in recent months.* A year after the Guatemalan election, Trump supporters, confident about what Trump promises, his word, cheer what began with a political gift from the president of Guatemala, who agreed, or perhaps even offered, to be a safe third country. If these agreements are enforced, a reduction in the migratory flow can be foreseen. But if it is true that forced migration has its origin in much deeper and more complex political, economic and social causes, we will have to wait for the expelled to find new paths to a better future than the one their home countries offer, as they have done before. Safe third countries: ruthless genius or pure, cheap populism? Only time will tell.

*Editor’s note: Kevin McAleenan resigned as acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 11, 2019.

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