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The Differences Between The European Migration Crisis And The Influx To The U.S.


President Trump has compared the influx of migrants to the United States with the migration crisis that Europe has faced in recent years. While Europe allowed many refugees in, Trump has vowed not to let that happen with the Central American migrants gathered in Tijuana and other ports of entry. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. But this week, he has been in Germany meeting with immigration experts and security officials there. He is on the line now. Hey there, John.


KELLY: Where exactly are you?

BURNETT: I'm in the town of Garmisch in the German Alps right close to the Austrian border, the scene of an enormous refugee influx in 2015.

KELLY: OK, so an appropriate setting for our conversation. And I want to just go ahead and get on the table that there are big differences between what is playing out here in the U.S. and what is playing out in Germany. There's a little bit of apples and oranges here.

BURNETT: Absolutely. There's a big difference in the immigration pictures on both continents. And the Central American asylum seekers are largely coming to escape poverty and crime. And the numbers that are coming to America's doorstep are smaller than the hundreds of thousands of migrants desperate to get to Europe who are fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet, the officials I've been talking to, the rhetoric I'm hearing, it sounds like they're reading from the same script.

KELLY: How so?

BURNETT: Well, in the U.S. as the midterms approached, Trump and the Republican candidates were warning of an approaching invasion by the migrant caravan. And you hear the same thing from the dominant far-right party here. Here's Beatrix von Storch of Alternative for Germany.

BEATRIX VON STORCH: I think it's the right of a country to protect its border and to decide whom they let in and whom not. It's a right for the Germans. And it's also the right of the American people. No border, no nation.

KELLY: John, how do the U.S. and Germany compare when handling migrants seeking asylum?

BURNETT: So Germany and the U.S. are both highly desirable destinations for migrants in their respective hemispheres. And Germans complain about their broken immigration system just like Americans do theirs. In the U.S., there's a backlog of some 750,000 immigration cases, and it takes years for them to be adjudicated. In Germany also, it can take years for a migrant to get a final answer on whether they'll get asylum. And meanwhile, they just melt into the population. Here's Christina Krause. She's an immigrant rights advocate in Berlin.

CHRISTINA KRAUSE: So we have a big frustration because it's so complex. Who is a refugee, you know, and who should really get asylum? Then you have a legal procedure, and that can take quite a long time in Germany.

BURNETT: One more parallel I want to mention - both Germany and the U.S. are debating who should be invited to immigrate legally. Should they continue to keep letting in family members of immigrants who are already here, or give preference to more skilled immigrants?

KELLY: It's worth noting the European migrant crisis has largely subsided - right? - especially in Germany.

BURNETT: Right. Here in Germany, the number of migrants has really dropped significantly over the past three years. It was as bad as 80,000 refugees over one weekend back in 2015, and so they had to do something serious to prevent that from ever happening again. The European Union made a deal with Turkey. Italy made a similar deal with Libyan leaders and militias. And all that made a difference.

KELLY: When you say that, I can't help but hear echoes of that in President Trump's approach, appealing to Mexico to do more to stop migrants from ever getting to the U.S. border in the first place.

BURNETT: Exactly. And, you know, you kind of wonder if Washington's looking across the pond. Washington wants Mexico to encourage Central American migrants to accept asylum in that country or at least wait in Mexico while their cases are being decided in the U.S. And those talks continue.

KELLY: What about the next step in that process, John, for those who do make it to the border and claim asylum? Are there lessons for us in the U.S. to be learned from Germany or from elsewhere in Europe?

BURNETT: You know, several experts here point to the Netherlands' fast-track system to process asylum applicants. It often takes only a few weeks from beginning to end. This is Gerald Knaus, head of a think tank called the European Stability Initiative.

GERALD KNAUS: Six weeks including appeal. They pay for the lawyers. And they know who needs protection or not relatively quickly.

BURNETT: And he made a really interesting point, Mary Louise. If human rights groups in Europe and America want to be effective advocates for migrants, you can't just say no border walls. You have to propose a system that combines empathy with border control.

KELLY: NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9 LAZY 9'S "TUMBLEWEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.