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Obama Understands the Border Crisis Better Than Rick Perry. His Child-Migrant Plan Proves It.

John Moore/Getty Images

With Congress so gridlocked it cannot bring itself to deal with even an obvious emergency like the crush of young migrants on the Texas-Mexico border, the Obama administration is now floating an intriguing proposal: To start processing young people’s applications for refugee status in Honduras itself, and thereby deter them from making the perilous journey to the U.S. border.

The administration’s draft plan envisions that under this pilot program, some 5,000 young people (maximum allowed age: 21) would apply for refugee status in Honduras and that about 1,750 would be accepted over the first two years, at a cost of up to $47 million. If this approach was deemed successful, it could be expanded to El Salvador and Guatemala.

There is no shortage of questions that immediately spring to mind. Doesn’t 5,000 applicants seem awfully low, given that since October 1 more than 16,500 minors have traveled to the U.S. border from Honduras alone? How would the U.S. personnel at the embassy in Tegucigalpa decide which young applicants were so threatened by gang violence that they qualified for the coveted status and entry to the U.S.? What would this new approach mean for the young Central Americans who already made the risky journey to the U.S. in recent months?

But the proposal comes with two clear benefits, one substantive and one political. First, it is a big step toward addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis: It will deter at least some young people from making the dangerous trip, thereby reducing demand for the migrant traffickers who are profiting off the children’s desperation.

Second, it might just help clarify the debate about the migrant crisis, which has become unhelpfully tangled with the broader immigration reform debate and its fixation on “border security.” Even before the child-migrant crisis, too much of the immigration reform debate has been taken up with border-security talk, given that by most metrics the border has become vastly more secure in recent years, at considerable cost. Still, it is true that some goodly number of immigrants still slip into the country illegally, making it understandable that hardened foes of illegal immigration would make a fetish out of hardening the border before all else.

But the child migrant crisis is another matter entirely. These young people are coming into Texas with the express purpose of finding Border Control agents or any U.S. personnel in a uniform so that they can present themselves as refugees. That is, they are not evading border security but seeking it out. This is why it is such a non sequitur for the migrant wave to set off conservative anxieties about our vulnerable southern underbelly, and for Texas Governor Rick Perry to have capitalized on those anxieties by sending 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border, at a whopping cost to taxpayers of $12 million per month. Because Perry mobilized them himself, the Guardsmen may have arrest power. Splendid. They can apprehend the young migrants, which of course is just what the migrants want.

Shifting the entry point for at least some of the young Central Americans to their countries of origin will hopefully redefine the problem as what it is: a challenge to our country’s laws and policies on asylum, which as now written do not directly address the plight of young people in gang-ravaged societies; and, more broadly, a reckoning with our responsibility to our southern neighbors.

This is what I heard from the foreign ministers of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala on Thursday when they came to speak at the Wilson Center in Washington: a plea for America to see the crisis for what it is, namely, not something that can be solved by soldiers with Rick Perry’s marching orders. “This is a problem [based in] a war that is being waged in our territory and us having been led to take the bulk of the deaths,” said the Honduran minister, Mireya Agüero de Corrales. She went on to say, not mincing any words, that “the fact that the U.S. views the consumption of drugs as a matter of public security is totally unacceptable from the standpoint of Central America…. What we believed was the blessing of Central America, that it was the bridge of the hemisphere, the heart, has become a tragedy.”

Guatemalan minister Fernando Carrera took a more analytical tone, urging the U.S. to recognize that the surge was being driven partly by the migrant traffickers themselves, who were looking for new business amid the decline in immigration from Mexico. “You’ve got the coyotes on the one hand who convinced the families [that children could gain entry to the U.S.], and the lack of guile of the families who believes that promise,” he said. “This is a good business. It’s very profitable. It’s a question of markets, and how markets work. If we continue to think of it only as law enforcement problem, we will be stuck as we are with drugs.”

That is what the administration is endeavoring to do with the Honduras proposal, to disrupt the migrant-trafficking business by offering, essentially, a competitor down the block who offers far lower prices and lower risk. And if it succeeds in doing so, the administration will make it easier for us to refocus on our broader immigration reform debate without hyperbolic talk of a swarm of young people evading the border security patrols that they have, in reality, come to seek out.