Columnist Razvan Sibii: What if we screened migrants in their own countries?

  • Razvan Sibii FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/29/2022 12:40:35 PM
Modified: 11/29/2022 12:38:11 PM

As with rising crime or environmental degradation, immigration crises are complicated social, political and economic phenomena that have no easy resolutions. The little successes (say, a reduction in the number of illegal entries into the country) have many fathers, while the relentless failures (such as migrant deaths at the border) are orphans, with no administration willing to admit that their approach to immigration, whether draconic, permissive or something in between, simply does not work.

That is not to say, of course, that immigration experts working in government agencies, activist organizations, think tanks or universities have not produced countless plans that aim to meet the needs of both the United States and as many migrants as feasible. Often times, however, their workable ideas get dismissed offhand because, at some time in the past, either a Democrat or a Republican administration has implemented them in a thoroughly disingenuous way, with horrific results.

One such idea is screening lots of potential refugees away from the southern border, so as to decongest that area, save lives and redeploy resources. What if, say, Venezuelans who desperately wanted to come to the United States could be interviewed in Venezuela — or a safer third country, if necessary — rather than only pay attention to them if they manage to make the highly treacherous trek to the Mexico-U.S. border? Would that be a good idea? Maybe it would be, but countries such as Australia, Italy and Spain, and, indeed, the U.S. have tried it before and their bad-faith application of it has thoroughly compromised the concept of “border externalization.” A reprisal of this migration-management tactic would have to come with strong guarantees that the government is not simply looking for an “out of sight, out of mind” solution to the inconvenient problem of asylum-seekers.

Every year, the U.S. receives a number of refugees from around the world. These are people fleeing persecution who have been officially recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and have been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security. They generally wait for years in refugee camps in countries like Kenya, Lebanon, Uganda and Turkey and never come close to the U.S. border until they are officially resettled into the country. The number of refugees accepted by the U.S., however, pales in comparison with the number of asylum-seekers taken into custody by Border Patrol every year. (For the past five years, the U.S. has admitted an average of 20,000 refugees per year. More than 230,000 arrests were made at the southern border just in the month of October). Could the asylum-seekers make their case to an American immigration official in a safe location that is not the Mexico-U.S. border?

The most obvious such location would be somewhere in Mexico. But the history here is overwhelmingly negative, and no one — not the Mexican authorities, not the immigration activists, and not the migrants themselves — trusts the U.S. government to set up an efficient, humane operation there. In 2019, the Trump administration implemented the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, which denied access into the U.S to asylum-seekers while their applications were being processed. That forced thousands of individuals to live in dangerous conditions, subject to extortion, kidnapping and violence, which, according to the immigrant rights community, constituted a direct violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention’s injunction against returning refugees to countries where they are likely to be further victimized.

Beginning in 1980, successive administrations have asked the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept Haitian refugees at sea and either push them back, away from U.S. shores, or return them to Haiti, or take them to an asylum-processing facility at Guantánamo Bay that was widely condemned for its miserable living conditions. In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that if a refugee is intercepted somewhere other than in U.S. territory, they can legally be returned to the dangerous locations they had fled from. If you can’t get to the U.S., in other words, the Refugee Convention can’t help you. Last month, NBC News reported that the Biden administration is considering reopening the Guantánamo Bay facility in anticipation of yet another wave of Haitian migrants.

Precedents such as these have made it clear that when the U.S. engages in “externalization of borders,” it does not see it primarily as a humanitarian solution, but rather as a convenient way to evade its legal responsibilities by denying refugees the chance to reach the border and claim asylum in the first place. The American authorities are not really interested in doing outside screening the right away.

“We refuse to do it,” Dr. Kathleen Arnold, the director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies Program at DePaul University, explained to me. “Judges and different migration officials are constantly saying that they don’t want to open the floodgates. If they were to set up outside screening, they would be afraid that we’d get tons of refugees.”

Yes, the dilemma of how to deal with increasing numbers of asylum-seekers at the southern border is maddeningly complicated. But when the U.S. government doesn’t even make a good faith effort to address it, no wonder people consider the immigration authorities to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

More than 100 million people are on the move right now around the world, fleeing violence. Climate change refugees will make that number seem minuscule by comparison. We should figure out effective and compassionate ways to process asylum claims before another populist president manages to convince the American people that the way to deal with people attempting to cross the border illegally is to shoot them down.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at


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