There’s a growing immigration crisis at our southern border with Mexico that threatens to overwhelm the U.S. Every month, 100,000 immigrants show up at the border. Many don’t even try to avoid capture; they simply surrender to border officials and claim asylum, which protects them from deportation and allows them to stay in the U.S. while their asylum claims are adjudicated, a process that can drag on for years.
In the past, most border crossers were men seeking to slip into the U.S. in search of jobs. The border policy for these illegals was to catch them and release them during the adjudication process. Most simply absconded, joining millions of other undocumented illegal aliens.
What’s making the current flood of illegal immigrants much worse is that many of those now arriving at the border are unaccompanied minors or parents with young children. They require a level of care and attention that is straining immigration detention facilities to the breaking point. Catching and releasing these vulnerable families — often a young mother and infants or toddlers — isn’t a viable option. They will likely remain in U.S. immigration facilities for many months or even years, at enormous cost to American taxpayers. The Office of Refugee Resettlement spends an estimated $16,000 per year on each of these immigrants. (Https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/373600-the-cost-of-refugee-resettlement-in-the-us-is-simply-too-high.)
The detention of these families isn’t something that began with the Trump administration. The Obama administration struggled with the same problem, also temporarily detaining families in the chain-link cage facilities the media often portrays as cruel and inhumane. The truth is that if the flood of illegal immigration continues at its current pace, the U.S. will be forced to erect even more of these detention facilities to handle the human tide.
That’s because current U.S. asylum laws actually encourage families to take advantage of our lax immigration system and join the caravans that are wending their way north through Mexico every day. Most of the immigrants are from the poor, corrupt, violent countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Word has spread like wildfire in these countries that if you can get your family to the American border, you have an excellent chance of being granted asylum in the U.S. Unless Congress changes the law to tighten this gaping asylum loophole, we can expect this exodus from Latin America into the U.S. to continue.
President Trump and his administration are understandably frustrated by this immigration crisis. But his efforts to deal with it have not lessened the problem. Shutting down the government in an effort to get more border security funding and barrier wall construction didn’t work. Threatening to close the border with Mexico altogether fell flat. And recently there was talk in the White House of reinstating the disastrous family-separation policy that managed to offend Americans of every political stripe.
The president’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and his immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, are pushing this hard line. Their advice does not serve Trump well. The reality right now — given Congress’s intransigence on badly needed immigration-law reform — is that the human flood at the border will continue unless and until the administration can strike a deal with Congress.
The president should send an immigration bill up to Capitol Hill that would significantly tighten U.S. asylum laws and end “catch and release” in exchange for legalizing the status of hundreds of thousands of young people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status, who were brought into the country illegally, many as infants, and have lived here all their lives. If they have abided by our laws and are contributing to society, they should be allowed to stay here and follow a path to American citizenship.
Political extremists in both parties may very well resist this reasonable compromise in an effort to fan partisan passions. Obstructionism may satisfy those at the far edges of American politics, but for the rest of us in the sensible center who see compromise as a virtue of the American political system, this is no way to run a government, or a country.
If compromise legislation on immigration is made impossible by the upcoming election season, Trump should take the case for meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform directly to the American people. Immigrants are part of American life. We or our ancestors were all immigrants once, including both Trump’s grandfather and mine. Let’s solve this immigration crisis in their honor.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.