Asylum Seekers at the U.S. Southern Border (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in 2019. The Central American region commonly known as the Northern Triangle—comprising El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—has experienced growing displacement in the past decade due to chronic violence, political corruption, and a lack of economic opportunity. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 2011 and 2016, the number of people from the Northern Triangle who sought refuge in surrounding countries increased by 2,249 percent, and is expected to continue to grow. Increasingly, migrants from the region are making the arduous journey through Mexico to the U.S. southern border to seek both new economic opportunities and protections from violence and persecution. The president has called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC to determine how to approach a growing number of asylum claims. Members will need to consider the economic, security, social, and political needs of the United States as they provide advice, while taking into account humanitarian and legal concerns as well as the potential effects of U.S. immigration policy on the rest of the world. As they counsel the president, NSC members will need to consider the interplay between short- and long-term options and determine how to prioritize finite U.S. resources in order to most effectively alleviate the strain on the asylum system.

Decision Point

The Department of Homeland Security has recently reported that over the coming months, a surge of migrants—more than double the average in recent years—will arrive at the southern border seeking asylum. The asylum seekers are mostly—though not exclusively—from Northern Triangle countries. U.S. media reports have begun calling the U.S. border “out of control.” Several hard-line anti-immigration groups have begun holding rallies protesting perceived U.S. leniency on immigration. The president has called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) and has asked members to consider the economic, security, social, and political needs of the United States. The president has asked NSC members to provide advice, taking into account humanitarian and legal concerns as well as the potential effects of U.S. immigration policy on the rest of the world. NSC members will need to consider both short- and long-term options to manage flows of asylum seekers. NSC members also need to determine how to prioritize limited U.S. resources in order to most effectively reduce the strain on the asylum system. 

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the factors contributing to the influx of immigration from the Northern Triangle to the United States southern border. 
  • Students will consider the economic, political, and security implications of U.S. asylum policy.
  • Students will evaluate several immigration policy options to address the influx of asylum seekers.

Concepts and Issues


  • Human rights 
  • Multilateralism   
  • Public opinion 
  • Sovereignty  


  • Regional security in the Americas  
  • Protection of human rights 
  • Challenges of economic and political development 
  • U.S. role in Central America and corresponding U.S. interests 

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

The United States has economic, humanitarian, and security interests in managing flows of asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries. The United States is among the largest providers of humanitarian aid globally and has sought to strengthen human rights norms around the world. Given the conditions of instability, violence, and poverty that many Northern Triangle migrants are fleeing, as well as the dangers faced on the journey, the United States has clear humanitarian incentives to provide support and protection for migrants and ultimately address the root issues causing this increase in migration. 

Immigration affects the U.S. economy, so economic considerations need to be part of the analysis. Those who support tighter restrictions argue that asylum seekers from Central America are using their asylum claim to disguise economic motives for migrating and often express concern that immigrants could displace American workers and strain U.S. resources. Those in favor of a more accepting admissions policy, however, argue that the economic benefits of allowing asylum seekers—both skilled and unskilled—into the country far outweigh the costs. Most economists agree that increases in the labor force from immigration stimulate the economy. 

Any policy to address the influx of asylum seekers on the southern border also needs to take national security into consideration. Those in favor of restrictive policies argue that, despite the potential economic and humanitarian benefits of immigration, allowing asylum seekers to enter the United States carries national security risks, including mistakenly allowing entry to members of transnational gangs, drug cartels, or terrorist organizations. Opponents of restrictive policies counter that most immigrants—especially refugees and asylum seekers—are carefully investigated (although unauthorized immigrants are not), and are unlikely to pose a threat. Many analysts also argue that security concerns are overblown as a result of racial bias and point out that most asylum seekers are fleeing those very concerns themselves. Although data is limited, several studies have suggested that immigrant populations, both documented and undocumented, do not pose a greater criminal threat than the native-born population. 

Finally, policymakers need to consider the potential for political and popular backlash that a large inflow of asylum seekers could cause. Influxes of refugees have caused significant political fallout in the past. Given that immigration policy in the United States is subject to fervent political debate, a large inflow of asylum seekers could further motivate nationalist anti-immigration groups.

As they deliberate, NSC members should consider several policy options to address the influx of asylum seekers from Central America, keeping in mind the political, economic, and security implications of each. These options can be pursued in combination or individually.

Policy Options

An Open-Door Policy 

The United States has at times opened the door to specific groups of asylum seekers. It has also provided Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for those who cannot return to their country of origin due to armed conflict or natural disaster. Haitians, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have all received TPS in the past. NSC members could consider adopting a similar open-door policy toward the coming influx of Northern Triangle migrants by offering them TPS or passing a specific law.

This approach would require a decision about which countries to include and how many asylum seekers to admit. NSC members would also need to decide whether to provide temporary or permanent protection to those arriving and how to process them in a timely fashion. 

Though an open-door policy would provide the greatest humanitarian protection to those arriving at the Southern border, it carries several risks:

  • This option could encourage continued migration from Northern Triangle countries, which could include migrants who are not necessarily fleeing violence but are seeking economic opportunity.
  • An open door could cause domestic political backlash that those who favor anti-immigration policies could exploit.
  • Absorbing or integrating individuals into the economic, social, and political fabric of the United States could strain social safety nets and create competition for jobs.
  • Admitting large numbers of asylum seekers could pose a security risk by straining existing capacity to screen migrants to identify potential security threats to the country.

Asylum Reform

The years-long backlog in the asylum system puts pressure on both the U.S. government, which is trying to process claims as quickly as possible, and asylum seekers, who live with uncertainty while their cases are processed. The government could commit resources to hire additional immigration judges in order to work through the backlog quickly. The government could also provide legal counsel to some or all asylum seekers (unlike in criminal court, immigration court has no right to counsel) to both speed the system and better protect asylum seekers’ rights. Finally, NSC members could consider reforming the detention system—especially the detention of minors.

Asylum reform would help to clear the current backlog of asylum claims in the United States more quickly. However, this option has potential drawbacks: 

  • This plan demands a higher investment of resources. The process of hiring and training new immigration judges is likely to be long and expensive; even small-scale additions of judges and staff for a fiscal year have cost over $40 million.
  • Providing access to counsel makes asylum seekers more likely to succeed in their claims, which could provoke a domestic political backlash.
  • This plan could reduce the backlog but would not address the root causes of displacement from Central America.

Enlisting Mexican and Regional Support to Stop the Flow

As long as the United States permits asylum seekers to enter the country and file their claims, their numbers are likely to grow. The asylum determination process is a lengthy one, and many asylum seekers live for two or more years in the United States before their cases are resolved. In addition, many who are rejected for asylum do not return home but remain in the United States without authorization. The United States could enlist Mexico as a barrier to most asylum seekers, requiring Central Americans and others arriving in Mexico to request asylum there instead or to remain in Mexico while their claims are processed in the United States.

This policy would likely reduce the flow sharply, but it has several risks:

  • Enlisting regional support could open the United States to charges of violating both its international commitments (the 1967 protocol and the principle of non-refoulement) and domestic law (the Refugee Act of 1980).
  • This option could force asylum seekers to remain in countries such as Guatemala and Mexico, in which some of the towns where immigrants wait are known for trafficking, smuggling, and extraction.
  • Migrants who could otherwise have used the asylum process could be pushed to attempt unauthorized entry to the United States.
  • This option could face Mexican opposition—NSC members would need to consider what incentives they could offer to convince Mexico to cooperate in such an arrangement.

Regional Aid and Refugee Processing 

NSC members could address the root causes of migration by providing support to Northern Triangle countries. This approach would involve using U.S. foreign aid, perhaps including police or military advisors, to increase security, build government capacity and combat corruption, and provide relief from extreme poverty and the harmful effects of climate change. For those still seeking asylum, the United States could work with stable neighboring countries such as Costa Rica and with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to set up refugee camps and processing facilities closer to the Northern Triangle countries. The United States could support efforts to process Northern Triangle refugees closer to home by committing to accept a significant number of these processed refugees.

This policy would reduce the incentive for Central Americans to attempt the long and dangerous journey to the United States. However, policymakers need to consider several drawbacks: 

  • This approach has the greatest amount of uncertainty—it is far from assured that U.S. money and support can bring greater stability to the region.
  • It could take the longest time to see the effects of aid on the U.S.-Mexico border. Success, if it comes, would likely take many years.
  • This option demands a high investment of resources concentrated outside the United States.