There is no ‘fix’ to the immigration problem

By | December 21, 2022

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The strange reality of the dysfunctional, duct-taped US border policy is that a key portion was written by former President Donald Trump’s administration during the pandemic, enforced under pressure by the administration of President Joe Biden and is now at the whim of the Supreme Court .

Meanwhile, CNN reporters on both sides of the border with Mexico on Tuesday encountered people who have already risked their lives on thousand-mile journeys to make it into the US.

The plodding end of Title 42, as the Trump-era policy is known, has the government bracing for a surge of migrants it has long known would be coming. The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court for more time Tuesday night to prepare for the end of a policy it officially opposes.

The Department of Homeland Security has projected between 9,000 and 14,000 migrants could attempt crossing the Southern border each day. Read more about Title 42 from CNN’s Catherine Shoichet.

Rather than fix things over the past two years, Republican governors have engaged in a game of one-upsmanship, staging ever-more elaborate public displays to proclaim themselves the biggest champion of border security.

Democrats, meanwhile, have seemed to refuse to acknowledge there is a crisis at the border and now the White House is scrambling at the last minute to vocalize a plan to deal with things.

All the while, businesses – from the high-tech to the labor-intensive – are in need of workers to combat a labor shortage. And people who want to come to the US legally wait in line for years.

“We’re not going to fix it immediately,” Theresa Cardinal Brown told me. She is managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and said solutions will take time. “There’s not a button to push or switch or a single policy that will suddenly quote unquote ‘fix’ what is happening.”

The major problem with US border policy over the past few decades is that Congress has failed to change policy.

“Congress should be working on tweaking immigration on a regular basis – every few years,” she said, arguing that used to occur in the ’80s and ’90s with tweaks to programs that responded to developments. Immigration is not a static thing. The motivations and situations of people who want to migrate change. And so do the needs of the US.

“The longer they don’t act and the worse the problems get, the longer it will take to right the ship, to get order back, to manage it appropriately,” she said.

Lawmakers are quickly coming together around a $1.7 trillion spending bill with extraneous bipartisan measures thrown in.

But the bill left out a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, the first while Arizona Democrat who’s now registered as an independent, and Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican, that would have given many of the 11 million undocumented people living in the US a pathway to legal status while also extending Title 42.

Every president for a generation has tried, and failed, to enact some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. Experts argue that only a holistic approach will work and it needs to address two main problems:

  • The millions of undocumented people living in the US
  • The antiquated and broken legal immigration system, which does not appropriately acknowledge labor needs of the country and drives people to seek unlawful routes.

“There’s not even a bipartisan agreement on whether there’s a crisis,” Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s New York office, said. “That, to me, is the beginning of the dysfunction of immigration.”

This week proves the dysfunction, he said, as the future of Title 42 swirled and images of migrants were plastered on TV screens.

“Here are clear images, clear facts, that there’s a crisis, and members of Congress choose nothing to do about it,” Chishti told me.

CNN’s Ed Lavandera, reporting from El Paso, described soldiers from the Texas National Guard deploying fence and barbed wire in areas where migrants have been crossing. The city’s Democratic mayor has declared a state of emergency and the city is looking for warehouse space to use as a temporary shelter.

“We’re also seeing where the politics of border security is taking over,” Lavandera told CNN’s Ana Cabrera Tuesday, noting the state has deployed those National Guard troops in a way that frustrates local officials, who Lavandera said want more help with food, shelter and transportation for migrants.

“Right now officials are saying that they are going to continue moving ahead as if Title 42 is going to be lifted tomorrow,” Lavandera said on CNN Tuesday.

The profile of migrants has changed in the years during which Congress did little other than throw money at border security. What used to be individual men from Mexico coming to the US to work has turned into a tide of families coming from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, risking their lives for a dangerous journey over thousands of miles.

That the immigration system is broken is not up for dispute. Whether it is fixable is a real question.

Just across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez, CNN’s David Culver has been talking to migrants who spent weeks traveling hundreds of miles, often on foot, and are now confused as they hope for asylum in the US.

He kept in touch with migrants he met a month ago. One family found its way to Indianapolis and is waiting for a January court date. One man was driven all the way from El Paso to California and then deported into Tijuana. Another family is renting a house without a kitchen in Juarez and has tried twice to cross into the US.

“The system is already overwhelmed,” Ron Vitiello, the former acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration, told Cabrera.

The end of Title 42 will mean more work for border officials, who have expelled migrants in half an hour under Title 42. When that policy is gone, it will take more than three hours per individual.

Vitiello said a Trump-era policy whereby people seeking asylum should wait for a hearing in Mexico or be detained should be reinstated. Anything less, he argued, is the equivalent of an open border.

The Biden administration has a six-pillar approach to increase border resources, send additional agents to the border and crack down on unlawful entry. What the administration has not done is embrace an extension of Title 42, even as it asked the Supreme Court for more time Tuesday.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat whose district includes portions of the border, said on CNN the US should maintain Title 42 as an ongoing policy and create a safe zone on the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala for asylum seekers to have their cases adjudicated before they arrive.

“Until we build long-term immigration infrastructure further away from the border, we will always be dealing with this issue,” Gonzalez said.

“People are running from poverty around the world and coming in very high numbers,” he added. “I think our laws are antiquated and we need to fix them and create legislation that fits modern day.”

Ruben Garcia is director of Annunciation House in El Paso, an organization that serves migrants. He told Lavandera lawmakers must acknowledge the changing nature of migrants.

“Right now the state and federal government are fighting each other,” Garcia said. “One of the reasons we are facing moments like this is because our political leadership does not sit down and work out comprehensive reform that takes into account the phenomenon of refugees.”

Democratic Rep. Andrew Espaillat of New York, himself a formerly undocumented immigrant, said the US fell “asleep at the wheel” over the past decade as countries elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere faltered.

“The hemisphere is facing a crisis of democracy,” he said, noting that migrants are fleeing regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as violence and natural disaster. “We have to address what is going on in the hemisphere,” he said.

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