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Beto O'Rourke's Immigration Plan Would Treat the Problem More Like a Refugee Crisis

The 2020 Democratic candidate's plan also includes $5 billion in aid funding to multiple Central American countries.
Beto O'Rourke

Beto O'Rourke's immigration plan would end many of Trump's immigration strategies.

On his first day in office, 2020 candidate Beto O'Rourke says he would undo essentially all President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration, including building a wall on the southern border. That's according to the immigration plan O'Rourke's campaign released on Wednesday. He is only the second Democratic contender to release a detailed immigration plan, after Julían Castro.

O'Rourke's plan also draws a sharp contrast with another area of Trump administration policy: Whereas Trump has dealt with the large number of Central American families arriving on the United States–Mexico border as an illegal immigration emergency, O'Rourke's plan would treat the problem more like a refugee crisis.

The plan proposes a significant investment in diplomatic efforts and aid funding—to the tune of $5 billion—to multiple Central American countries. It also calls for the end of many of Trump's deterrence-based immigration strategies, in particular the prolonged detention of asylum seekers. Instead, the plan opts for community- and family-based detention alternatives.

What explains the vast differences between O'Rourke and Trump's immigration strategies? And would an immigration strategy that involves foreign aid be effective?

Illegal Immigration Emergency, or Refugee Crisis?

The difference in policy stems from a fundamental difference in perspective. Since the first years of this decade, the number of Central American families and unaccompanied minors traveling to the U.S. has grown exponentially—whereas single men from Mexico once made up the vast majority of border crossers, now the majority of people Border Patrol takes into custody are people traveling as family units who are asking for asylum.

There is a wide array of explanations for this demographic change. Trump and other anti-immigrant conservatives contend that "pull factors" in the U.S.—namely "broken" immigration laws that make it harder to deport families—have encouraged people to migrate with their children, under the impression that they will have an easier time getting into the country as a families. Buoyed by this belief, Trump officials have pursued a deterrence immigration strategy: They've done essentially everything they can to make it harder for Central American families to enter the country. (Perhaps the most prominent example of the strategy was the family separation crisis, promulgated by a collection of federal policies in 2017 and 2018.)

In the other camp, O'Rourke considers "push factors" to be the primary explanation for the increased number of family arrivals. In other words, he believes the massive increase in family migration has much more to do with the countries that people are leaving, rather than laws or policies in the U.S. In the last decade, the three countries sending the most families to the U.S.—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which together comprise the "Northern Triangle" of Central America—have seen some of the highest rates of violence and poverty in the world. During the last five years, El Salvador and Honduras have frequently ranked as some of the most dangerous countries on the globe, with murder rates at higher levels than in active war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Though less violent, Guatemala has also experienced a massive and prolonged drought in much of its farmland, pushing already-impoverished areas into famine-like conditions. Because research indicates that the drought has been intensified by climate change, some are calling the people leaving Guatemala "climate refugees."

With these push factors in mind, O'Rourke wants to end many of the Trump administration's deterrence strategies. The idea is that, if push factors are motivating people to leave, changing immigration policy in the U.S. is unlikely to have a significant effect on migration patterns.

The biggest difference between O'Rourke's plan and Trump's policy would be an end to major detention requirements. Whereas current administration policy calls for most asylum seekers to remain in detention (or in Mexico) during their asylum proceedings, O'Rourke's plan would only require detention for people with criminal records, who might present a danger to communities. This would give asylum seekers the opportunity to await their final court decisions in community- and family based case management systems. These programs encourage asylum seekers to make their court dates by providing access to resources—like legal counsel, housing assistance, and job training—as long as asylum seekers remain within the system.

Does Investment in Central America Decrease Migration Rates?

O'Rourke's immigration plan is also notable in that it involves foreign aid and diplomacy efforts to try to combat push factors. The plan calls for increased diplomacy with the Northern Triangle countries and other regional partners like Mexico, as well as $5 billion investment in the Northern Triangle.

"We need to refocus on supporting democracy and human rights and invest in reducing violence because the only path to regional security runs through a more democratic and prosperous Latin America," the plan reads.

O'Rourke would be far from the first president to try to leverage investment in Central America as a method of altering migration rates: The George W. Bush and Obama administrations both invested in a variety of efforts in Central America, to varying degrees of success.

Sarah Bermeo, a professor of political science at Duke University and an expert in Central American development, says that the success of such investment programs depends on the programs' ability to target the primary issues that drive migration in the key regions where people are leaving from.

"If I was advising the government, I would say: Let's look at the programs that have worked, and target our funding there," Bermeo says. "But since those programs obviously haven't been enough to stem the need for migration, let's think about what are the drivers in the other areas, and let's target those specific communities where people feel they need to drop everything and just go."

While Bermeo says that addressing the root causes of migration will involve addressing corruption and impunity in Northern Triangle countries, such macro-level interventions are unlikely to change migration rates in the short term. But Bermeo thinks that there are certain areas where targeted investments could have a significant effect in a quick timeframe. One is in food security: Though drought has pressed many Central American farmers into desperation, foreign investment in more efficient irrigation methods and crop rotation strategies could quickly alleviate much of the strain. O'Rourke's plan calls for such investments: Part of the $5 billion would go to "[s]upporting the growth of small-scale farming and access to markets" as well as "providing agricultural technical support to increase adaptation to climate change and improve the use of natural resources."