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Two groups of lawmakers took trips to the U.S-Mexico border last week. Their conclusions, like their trips, are vastly different, highlighting the difficulty of passing and enacting new laws to improve America’s broken immigration system.
A group of U.S. Senate Republicans traveled to a Border Patrol detention facility in Texas and to the border at the Rio Grande River. At a riverside press conference, some of the senators placed the blame for the crisis solely on President Joe Biden, largely blaming his halting construction of a border wall.
A few hundred miles away, Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives visited a detention center, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, where unaccompanied minors are being held. Members of that delegation emphasized that they want to ensure that migrant children are not mistreated and blamed the Trump administration for the problems at the border.
These two perspectives might be hard to bridge, but that is no excuse for Congress to continue to duck its responsibility to develop immigration policies that address both concerns for border security and for the humane treatment of migrants who are traveling to the U.S. border seeking to escape violence, poverty and natural disasters in their home countries.
Comprehensive immigration legislation has a poor history in the Capitol. The last most successful attempt at comprehensive reform, in 2013, failed when House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring a Senate-passed bill to the floor. That bill, which passed on a strong bipartisan 68-32 vote in the Senate, addressed many aspects of immigration including funding for border security, a shift toward work-based visas, a path toward citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and requirements for employers to verify the status of workers.
In Texas last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley said there was no point in lawmakers talking about immigration reform while the border was “open.”
“How can you pass an immigration bill when you have an open border?” Grassley asked during a press conference at the Rio Grande River. “If they want to accomplish anything on immigration — and I want to help them — it would be secure the border. You have to stop the bleeding before you can take care of the problem.”
For the record, the border is not wide open. “The border remains largely closed as Biden continues to use a public health authority that Trump invoked in March 2020 to allow for migrants apprehended at the border to be immediately expelled due to the pandemic,” Politico reported earlier this month. The administration has made exceptions for unaccompanied children and some families arriving with small children.
Apprehensions have increased dramatically this year. The U.S. Border Patrol reported apprehending nearly 100,000 migrants in February. This comes after a precipitous drop in apprehensions from a recent high of nearly 133,000 in May 2019.
Thousands of unaccompanied children are being held at Customs and Border Patrol facilities along the border and another 10,500 children are in emergency facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.
These situations highlight the need for significant — and quick — changes in immigration policy and practices.
Those changes should come from Congress.
“It is extremely frustrating that this isn’t a more bipartisan effort,” Rep. Tony Gonzalez, a Republican from Texas, recently told The Hill. He added: “It starts by coming together and having a conversation.”
“Right now there’s two trains of thought — either you’re for border patrol and against immigration, or you’re for immigration and against border patrol. That’s the wrong answer,” said Gonzalez who was not on a weekend trip to the border.
“We need to have both for a secure border as well as being compassionate and having a robust immigration system.”
Gonzalez’s model is precisely what Congress should do.
In the absence of congressional action, presidents have turned to executive orders to change immigration policies. This has caused a see-saw set of policies that change with each administration.
Former President Donald Trump used hundreds of executive actions to limit immigration to the United States and to divert billions of dollars in Pentagon funding to support construction on a border wall. Democrats criticized the former president for his use of executive orders to limit immigration and to target specific groups, such as Muslims. On the day he took office, Biden stopped the construction of border barriers through an executive order. Other orders he signed regarding immigration implement reviews and won’t immediately change policy.
Those who object to Biden’s immigration executive orders and support more funding for border security, and those who want a humane immigration system that also supports the millions of undocumented migrants who are living in the United States, must stop grandstanding and start working together.
Crafting workable, meaningful immigration policies that address current realities is difficult. It hasn’t always made it across the finish line, but this has been done before. Congress can do it again.