What if we got serious about border challenges? (Editorial)

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Visiting Eagle Pass last month to investigate reports of outsiders overwhelming the small border city, a member of this editorial board found few signs of immigrants who had just waded across the Rio Grande. Perhaps they weren’t all that obvious, because usually those who arrive alone or in small groups don’t linger. 

We did find an invasion of sorts. An invasion from the north.  

Department of Public Safety troopers from Texas and other states and National Guard soldiers from Texas and elsewhere had not necessarily overwhelmed the community of nearly 30,000 residents, but their uniformed presence was ubiquitous. Whatever work they were doing to protect the border, they had discovered the best lunch specials at local Mexican restaurants and were keeping hotels and motels at capacity. They also had commandeered a riverside city park, transforming its soccer fields and green space into a staging ground for trucks, boats and DPS SUVs, as well as rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire and Rio Grande barrier buoys. The equipment and personnel were all part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s border-enforcement showpiece, his multibillion-dollar Operation Lone Star. After allegations that state troopers mistreated migrants, some private property owners denied DPS access to their land along the border. 

The scene in Eagle Pass the last few days has been different from just a few weeks ago. According to news reports, several thousand migrants, many from Central and South America and the Caribbean, have been making it across the river daily seeking asylum. Thousands are coming from Venezuela, a nation beset by government corruption and ineptitude. These waves have arrived before, and, as in the past, their numbers have overwhelmed Border Patrol agents, who have resorted to releasing people onto city streets. The only emergency shelter in Eagle Pass has strained to accommodate the arrival of so many people.

Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr., told the New York Times that the local hospital was being swamped, as well. He declared a state of emergency.

“Here in Eagle Pass, we feel abandoned,” he told Fox News, pleading with President Joe Biden or anybody with the administration to come visit, to issue a statement, to indicate a plan of action. He deserves a reply. 

Obviously, Abbott’s get-tough, Texas-style going-it-alone approach has not worked, either in Eagle Pass or in El Paso, Brownsville and other border cities. Neither has U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s desperate bank-shot effort to deflect attention from a government shutdown by blaming the White House for not invading Mexico or building a wall or whatever it is the hardliners are demanding. 

“The border doesn’t need more money to be solved,” McCarthy told reporters last week. “It needs a policy change that the president put in when he became president. You have the materials to finish the wall now. He’s paying money to make sure the wall doesn’t get built.”

McCarthy’s own desperate ploy — basically to keep his job — underscores the fact that what the border really needs are serious people doing serious work to solve a serious problem. Neither Abbott’s concertina wire nor Donald Trump’s wall are going to stop desperate people seeking a better way of life for themselves and their families.

Every nation has a right, indeed an obligation to its citizens, to maintain secure borders. Dangerous drugs being smuggled across borders are an outrage; they must be stopped. Chaos at the border is itself dangerous. 

Also outrageous are governments so inept, corrupt and threatening that their citizens see no alternative but to set out on a life-threatening journey for refuge. It’s hard to imagine a situation so dire that a family decides to undertake a weeks- or months-long trek through a jungle seeded with thieves, rapists and murderers, before clambering atop a swaying freight train through Mexico, before entrusting their fate to a coyote who takes whatever money they have and who may or may not get them to within sight of the promised land. If they reach the Rio Grande, wading across a shallow river or contorting themselves through dangerous razor wire is certainly no deterrent. 

Granted, some of these people fleeing harm and risking everything to get to America stretch the definition of asylum, and yet our history obligates us to give them a hearing. It’s worth remembering that our asylum laws were enacted in the wake of the Holocaust as a solemn promise to people fleeing persecution that the United States would never again turn them away.

Serious elected officials doing the serious work of immigration reform and border security would not be playing jeans-and-boots dress-up on  congressional tours of the border. They would be spending their time crafting legislation on Capitol Hill that both broadens and simplifies pathways of legal immigration. They would be writing laws designed to open up opportunities for asylum-seekers to work in this country while their cases are adjudicated. They would increase the number of personnel at ports of entry to conduct orderly asylum interviews. 

They would be working, as well, to fortify those ports of entry, the primary gateway for components of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. They would be working on initiatives with Mexico and other neighbors to the south to lessen the deleterious influence of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and other countries whose governments are driving desperate citizens to seek refuge elsewhere. More than 7 million people have fled Venezuela, for example; more have sought refuge in neighboring Colombia than in the U.S. 

The Biden administration has taken a variety of approaches to addressing the crisis, including a parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. The policy is designed to assist refugees who have urgent reasons to flee their homes but who may not meet the legal requirements for asylum. It’s a good idea and probably should be expanded to other countries, but the White House, acting on its own, is limited in what it can accomplish. Only Congress can take a comprehensive approach. That won’t be happening in the foreseeable future.  

Andrea R. Flores, an immigration adviser in the Obama administration, noted in the New York Times recently that America’s asylum system is not set up to meet the needs of every immigrant forced to flee. “But the global challenges we’re facing,” she wrote, “require a reimagining of the country’s immigration framework.”

Reimagining would seem to be a tall order for a nation that has ignored for nearly four decades the ever-growing need to fix our broken system. Reimagining, if it were to happen, would involve an acknowledgement of the fact that people from around the globe, including Central and South America, are on the move. Political and economic turmoil, poverty, violence, hunger and, yes, climate change, are driving vast numbers to seek, not only better lives, but life itself. This country cannot wall itself off from reality. Desperation finds its way around most any wall. 

Imagine reimagining. Republican House members would not be obsessed with Hunter Biden and impeaching a president without evidence. They would not be ready to flip the sign in the government window from open to closed, forcing federal employees to feed their families without a paycheck. GOP candidates for president would not be shouting at each other about $50,000 curtains at a UN residence. They would not be bloviating about drone strikes, blockades or military raids on Mexico, a country of 130 million people and now our largest trading partner. They would not leave Eagle Pass and other border communities alone to cope with waves of migrants. 

Reimagining requires serious people working together on a serious problem. Or, we can talk about curtains.

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