Originally Published in The New York Times
Opinion by Veronica Escobar March 24, 2021
Many Republicans are eager to blame President Biden for the increase in families and children arriving at the border, but the truth is that this is not a new phenomenon. Since 2014, as Central American migrants have come, generous border communities like El Paso have ensured that they are safe and cared for. Meanwhile, the rest of the country wrings its hands, politicians complain about the “crisis at the border,” businesses across the country benefit from the labor of these hard-working individuals — and nothing changes.
Americans must finally acknowledge that the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end anytime soon.
Presidents’ words are a minor factor in migrants’ decisions to leave their homeland. Overwhelmingly and consistently, Central American refugees tell stories of fleeing violence, persecution, food insecurity and calamitous economic conditions in their countries. Back-to-back hurricanes and storms that have made it impossible to rebuild are new motivations to go north.
At most, what politicians say changes only the tone of the pitches criminal organizations make to the migrants they prey on, pitches of hope with a compassionate administration or fear with a cruel one. Policies limiting legal avenues for immigrants encourage them to undertake desperate measures to enter the United States, making it more difficult for agents and more profitable for criminal organizations.
Closing the border isn’t a real solution. It’s clear that even the most draconian efforts by the Trump administration — walls, family separation, expulsion — did not stop the flow of migrants to the southwestern border. Neither did a deadly pandemic. The Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy put an unsustainable burden on Mexico, and pushing people back into that country fuels even more of the criminal activity that already plagues it.
The Biden administration’s challenge is not just the number of children arriving at the border; it’s also that the previous administration effectively obliterated existing systems and infrastructure (flawed as they were), failed to work collaboratively on an orderly transition and created a backlog of vulnerable people on the other side of our ports of entry.
Politically, it’s never the “right time” for immigration reform. Even politicians genuinely seeking solutions have often been afraid to tackle the issue because there’s no quick and easy fix.
We came close in 2013. The Senate passed a bill with 68 votes. But John Boehner, then the speaker of the House, refused to bring the bill to the floor. Since then and especially during the Trump era, xenophobia has become useful politically to some as well as a tool of division.
The good news is that we now have an administration willing to work on the issue. It will take significant collaboration and something in very limited supply: patience.
Mr. Biden should engage the leaders of the Western Hemisphere for a summit that identifies shared responsibilities, challenges and opportunities. Engaging Northern Triangle countries, fully restoring the Central American Minors program (which allows children to apply for refugee status in their home countries) and reinstating aid (practices curtailed by former President Donald Trump) is a good start. But a multilateral approach must include our Canadian allies and address the causes of the migration coming not just from Central America but from Mexico as well. We need a shared plan with a focus on security to combat crime and persecution that includes cracking down on gangs and other criminal organizations and creates accountability for politicians and officials who turn a blind eye to criminals.
We must stop treating vulnerable children and families like a national security threat. We have to rethink our facilities and processes to include social workers, humanitarian aid workers and other civilian personnel at our processing centers to greet those who seek refuge here with humanity. And we need to reimagine the infrastructure where families and children are processed.
We also need to understand that climate change has made some of the poorest parts of our globe too difficult to inhabit. Hurricanes and drought are causing food insecurity and mass migration. We shouldn’t be surprised that populations in hard-hit areas have no choice but to leave.
Another driver is our country’s eagerness to employ migrant labor. A majority of unaccompanied children and families from Central America come to the United States to reunite with family members (parents, children, siblings or spouses) who are working here in construction, meatpacking, agriculture or the hospitality industry — paying taxes, helping their employers be profitable and supporting our economy. Many immigrants are the very essential workers we’ve depended on during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Congress must enact immigration reform. Last week the House passed H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act, as well as other measures that would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those granted temporary protected status for humanitarian reasons and agricultural workers and their families. They are promising, yet they address only a small fraction of the people already living and working here. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has introduced another important piece of legislation that would take a multifaceted approach to immigration, including dealing with the root causes of it. (These bills also highlight why many of us believe we must eliminate the filibuster, which has been an instrument of gridlock for immigration reform.)
The Biden administration must work with Congress to reform the Department of Homeland Security. Border Patrol agents have been performing duties unrelated to their law enforcement functions, like data entry for processing migrants and child and family supervision. Agents should be on the ground, focused on collaborating with law enforcement partners to track criminal activity and apprehending those who pose a true threat to our security.
Those of us who represent border communities can help the administration reshape a system that has focused on border militarization, a flawed and expensive strategy that we should all agree — after decades and hundreds of billions of dollars — is a failure.
If we continue to ignore the facts and use the same failed approaches of the past, we shouldn’t be surprised when we have the same conversations every year. The Biden administration is willing to try new approaches and focus on solutions; it wants to restore order and humanity once and for all. It deserves a chance.
I’m not asking for open borders. I’m simply asking for open minds.
Veronica Escobar is a Democratic representative from Texas.