Imagine if President Donald Trump intercepted migrants before they reached the United States, sped up decisions on asylum claims, and sent some asylum-seekers to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Trump would be following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton, who took all those steps to confront asylum challenges during his eight-year White House tenure in the 1990s. A review of news coverage at the time is both a time warp and a demonstration of how dramatically the politics of immigration have changed in the past quarter century.

Any move Trump makes, of course, provokes a new round of “resistance” in the mainstream media, the academic community, liberal activists in the nonprofit world, and Democratic politicians, including caterwauling, denunciations, protests and lawsuits.

But David Martin, who joined the Clinton administration as a consultant to help reform the broken asylum system, recalled a much different political environment in the 1990s. He told LifeZette that refugee advocates, administration officials and others worked closely together in good faith.

Few lawsuits followed either rules changes or a law Congress passed in 1996.

“It was one of the best processes I’ve been involved in with government,” said Martin, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law.

The way Clinton dealt with asylum could offer a roadmap to Trump as he wrestles with growing numbers of Central American immigrants arriving at the U.S. border claiming persecution and seeking asylum, according to experts.

Clinton faced a number of challenges related to asylum during his presidency. A steady stream of Haitians — which began under President George H. W. Bush — continued after Clinton took office. As a candidate, Clinton had criticized Bush’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, sparked by a military coup that overthrew the nation’s democratically elected president in 1991.

But Clinton continued Bush’s policy, forcibly interdicting Haitians as they tried to cross the Caribbean Sea to America.

Later, foreigners began arriving on airplanes with fraudulent travel documents or no papers at all. Martin said the sheer number overwhelmed customs officials.

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The administration made a number of changes, he said. For instance, he said, the government adopted a “last in, first out” policy that prioritized new asylum cases over ones that had been pending for a long time. That was meant to deter fraudulent claims by convincing foreigners they quickly would be returned to their home countries.

The 1996 law allowed for “expedited removal.” Martin said the administration beefed up staffing at major airports. If people without proper documents or no documents at all did not make noise about asylum, officials sent them home. If they did claim asylum, the new law provided for short-term detention. And authorities sped up the process for determine whether applicants qualified.

In another major change, asylum-seekers no longer got work permits, a change that acted as a disincentive to people using asylum as a cover for better job opportunities, Martin said.

Reforms ‘Did Drive Down the Numbers’
The combined measures worked. “It really did drive down the numbers quite substantially,” Martin said.

Asylum claims reached about 150,000 a year in the early 1990s. After the reforms took effect, that number plummeted to about 20,000 to 30,000. Martin said that at the same time — because of fewer bogus claims — the percentage of requests that were granted went up.

Perhaps the highest-profile asylum challenge Clinton faced came in the form of Cubans fleeing communist dictator Fidel Castro’s regime. Cubans, as a vestige of Cold War politics, enjoyed special status favoring their asylum claims.

But the numbers picked up steadily in the 1990s, and many were not fleeing political persecution but seeking better economic opportunities. Clinton responded by creating what became known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. If a Cuban migrant made it to U.S. shores, he got placed in the asylum system. But if the Coast Guard intercepted Cubans in the Florida Straits, they were not automatically brought to America.

As with the airport crisis, the administration assigned adjudicators to Coast Guard vessels.

“There was a real concern that if they didn’t do something, it was going to turn into another Mariel situation.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said her brother-in-law served on one of the ships and recalled that Cubans scooped out of the water got a medical exam and an asylum screening.

“They were very careful to refer to them as economic migrants,” she said.

The policy was controversial in the United States, but not in the same way it would be today. Instead, Clinton took heat from fellow Democrats for not doing enough to stop the Cubans. Lawton Chiles, Florida’s Democratic governor in 1994, for example, declared a “state of immigration emergency.”

Later, according to The Washington Post, Chiles praised Clinton after the administration reversed its earlier stance that extraordinary measures were unnecessary.

“Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, are lined up on Cuban shores, waiting to leave,” Chiles said, according to The Post. “There is no effort by Castro to stop them. In fact, it looks like every effort is being made to encourage them.

The same story quoted Larcenia Bullard, then a Democratic congresswoman from south Florida, expressing concern about the Cubans’ impact on the jobs, schools and health care of her black constituents.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said.

Fears of a Mariel Repeat
Vaughan of CIS said it would be difficult to imagine any Democratic politician talking about an immigration issue the way Chiles and Bullard did.

“Can you imagine? Maybe they felt like they [the immigrants] were all going to be Republicans,” she quipped. “But there was a real concern that if they didn’t do something, it was going to turn into another Mariel situation.”

That was a reference to the Mariel boatlift, in which then-President Jimmy Carter agreed to accept some 125,000 exiles from Cuba in 1980. Some had been imprisoned in Cuba.

Clinton lost a re-election campaign as governor of Arkansas that year in part because he had agreed to house some of the émigrés in his state.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said Clinton was no outlier when it came to Democrats. In the 1970s, he noted, a Democratic governor of California fought efforts by the federal government to resettle Vietnamese refugees in the state.

The governor? The current one — Jerry Brown, who expresses decidedly different views today.

The flow of Cubans became so large during the 1994 crisis that the Clinton administration began housing them at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, adding to some 15,000 Haitian boat people already held there.

Related: Sessions Orders More Prosecutions of Illegal Immigrants

This was before the military base was used to imprison terrorists, of course. But it was no less controversial — at least in Cuba, where the government accused Clinton of planning a “concentration camp.”

Mehlman and Vaughan said Trump could use Clinton as a model.

“I assume he can pretty much do the same things Clinton did,” Mehlman said.

He added that fraudulent asylum claims gum up the works.

“It’s not only an abuse, it hurts the people with legitimate claims,” he said.

One lesson, Vaughan said, is that “it’s always better to resolve these cases before people get to the United States.”

Martin, who worked with the Clinton administration on asylum reform, blamed part of the current breakdown on budget cuts. The Department of Justice, he said, cut back on immigration judges and let the backlog grow. But a backlog in immigration cases is much more deleterious than a backlog in a permit office.

In addition to more resources, Martin said the Trump administration should focus its efforts on newer cases to deter frivolous claims, as the Clinton administration did.

“It’s really a shame a system that worked so well for 15, 16, 17 years ceased working,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.