SAN DIEGO — On April 12, I toured the busiest border crossing between America and Mexico — the San Ysidro Port of Entry, in San Diego — and the walls being built around it. Guided by a U.S. Border Patrol team, I also traveled along the border right down to where the newest 18-foot-high slatted steel barrier ends and the wide-open hills and craggy valleys beckoning drug smugglers, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants begin.
It’s a very troubling scene.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since October, along the whole southwest border, from California through Texas, there have been 190,000 apprehensions of “family units” (a child under 18 with a parent or legal guardian) who crossed illegally from Mexico, up from 40,000 a year ago. That’s an increase of 374 percent.
And roughly 30 percent of those apprehended sought asylum — up from 1 percent a couple of years ago. Asylum is a humanitarian status based on fear of persecution in one’s native land. Many of these requests are legitimate; some are economic migrants gaming the process. But once you’re in the U.S. and file for asylum, there’s a good chance for you to stay — legally or illegally.
In addition to families, 135,000 adults and 36,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October after entering illegally. Most of these immigrants come from Guatemala and Honduras (where President Trump recently decided — insanely — to cut humanitarian aid), but migrants are also now flocking to open borders from as far away as Haiti and Africa.
The whole day left me more certain than ever that we have a real immigration crisis and that the solution is a high wall with a big gate — but a smart gate.
Without a high wall, too many Americans will lack confidence that we can control our borders, and they therefore will oppose the steady immigration we need. But for this wall to have a big gate, it has to be a smart and compassionate one, one that says, “Besides legitimate asylum seekers, we’ll accept immigrants at a rate at which they can be properly absorbed into our society and work force, and we’ll favor visa seekers with energies and talents that enrich and advance our society.” That’s the opposite of the unstrategic, far-too random, chaotic immigration “system” we have now.
That’s been a “system” in which millions of people could cross into our country illegally or overstay their visas. Or cross over and claim asylum and then melt into society while awaiting their hearings. Or bring in their family members through family reunification programs. And that’s no matter their possible impact on communities and social welfare resources or their ability to assimilate and contribute to society.
It’s a crazy “system” that tells so many foreign students who come here legally — to learn computer science, medicine, design or engineering — to get out after they graduate, while offering myriad protections to people who arrive illegally or win entry through a lottery. We can’t afford this unthinking approach any longer, not if we want to sustain the safety nets and the health care and education promises we’ve made for the people already here.
Indeed, if you are pro-immigration as I am, you have to acknowledge that this haphazard “system” has overwhelmed the Border Patrol and our immigration courts and contributed to Trump’s election. A May 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that 48 percent of white working-class Americans agree that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
And in an era when more and more countries will fracture under environmental, population, criminal and technological stresses, we simply cannot take everyone who shows up at our border.
There has to be a compromise. As David Frum put it in his smart essay on immigration this month in The Atlantic, “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.”
And Trump fans need to realize that, yes, walls work — but only when paired with a strategy that says “we’re not only going to build walls.”
We’re also going to invest in stabilizing the countries with so many people seeking asylum in America; mitigate the climate change, overpopulation and governance stresses fracturing these countries; celebrate the essential contribution that a steady flow of legal, high-energy and high-I.Q. immigrants make to America; embrace our historical role as a haven for those legitimately fleeing persecution — as much as we possibly can — because our country was founded by people doing the same; and expand our immigration court system to quickly welcome those who deserve asylum and repatriate those who don’t.
Unfortunately, all those actions would require a president ready and able to forge a national immigration compromise. Instead, we’re stuck with a man who just exploits the border crisis and uses his “wall” to divide the nation and energize his base.
Or, as Frum put it: “The gratuitous brutalities of the Trump administration shock the conscience, and fail even on their own terms. Intended as deterrents, they are not deterring. They are succeeding only in counter-radicalizing liberal opinion to stigmatize almost all immigration enforcement against nonfelons as cruel, racist and unacceptable.”
What a terrible waste of a crisis.
As the human tragedy here has been well covered, I wanted to understand how this wall system works. The Border Patrol took me out to the end of the newly built barrier that extends east from San Ysidro, about five miles along the California-Mexico border. The new wall consists of steel slats 18 feet tall, then a road observed by television cameras and other sensors, followed by 30-foot-high steel slats, most of which have not been completed.
Where this largely impenetrable system ends, though, the Border Patrol explained, human smugglers begin. They will send a group of migrants in family units across the hardscrabble hills. That group will look to immediately surrender to a Border Patrol team and ask for asylum.
By law, anyone asking for asylum has to be taken in for a “credible-fear hearing” to determine if the asylum claim has merit. The bar is low and leaflets circulating in Tijuana coach people on what exactly to say to pass that interview to qualify for a formal hearing before an immigration judge.
If these noncriminal illegal entrants have a young child in their group, the Border Patrol is obligated to get a car seat to use in transporting them to the Customs and Border Protection facility in San Ysidro. If they are sick, the border agents are obligated to take them to a local hospital. This is straining all the local emergency rooms.
While the border agents are tied up with this process of taking in families seeking asylum, the human smugglers send another batch of migrants to cross the border farther down the valley. These are people who don’t want to claim asylum, because they have criminal records, have been thrown out of the United States before, are carrying drugs or just want to enter illegally to find work.
“We don’t have the resources to deal with large numbers of families with kids claiming asylum and” — at the same time — “catch those who just want to cross illegally. And the smugglers know it,” one Border Patrol agent explained to me.
Once a family requesting asylum is in our legal system, and awaiting a hearing, if they have a minor with them, the child cannot be held in custody for longer than 20 days. And — thankfully — now that Trump has reversed his “zero tolerance” policy, parents and children cannot be separated unless the parent is deemed to pose a danger to a child. (Even this is controversial, though, as the standards of parental behavior are not sharply defined, and because thousands of children separated under Trump’s original policy still have not been accounted for.)
In any event, today if a family can pass the credible-fear interview, the whole family has to be released inside America within 20 days while waiting to see an immigration judge, which can take two or three years because of the backlog. So they fade into America. Studies show that a majority show up for their hearings, but tens of thousands have not.
As I said, many of these families do meet the standards for asylum; others are looking for work. One reason many asylum seekers enter illegally, though, is that at official entry points they are told by border agents that limited staffing precludes more than a small number of asylum applications from being processed each day, so the immigrants need to wait in Mexico. But as a result of this crush of applications, more and more people who really have had to flee persecution get pushed further and further back in line for a hearing.
The Customs and Border Protection headquarters in San Ysidro has temporary holding rooms for 300 people, be they asylum seekers, illegal migrants caught somewhere on the border that we need to repatriate or drug smugglers destined for prosecution. Everyone gets a health check and an interview to determine what legal track to be put on.
But this takes time. Members of rival gangs cannot be held in the same holding room; sick people cannot be put with healthy people; young men cannot be put with young children they might abuse; and gay or transgender detainees can’t be put in holding rooms with people who might harm them. Each restriction shrinks the number of rooms available to hold people — and that’s in the biggest, best facility we have. Others along the border are much more makeshift and overcrowded.
On top of all that, policy mandates that every person in detention has to be checked every 15 minutes to make sure no one is being abused by someone else in the holding room — and the detainees’ status logged in the system computer. All of this requires a huge amount of personnel and time. The result is that C.B.P. officers are getting pulled off, say, truck inspections, to deal with the flood of illegal immigrants — so now it can take seven hours for a truck with just-in-time inventory or food to cross from Mexico, instead of 30 minutes.
What happens to the tens of thousands of noncriminal migrants who are apprehended and for whom there is no space in the holding rooms? All kinds of things, depending on their status. If you are a single adult from Mexico, you might be quickly repatriated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (ICE currently has about 50,000 undocumented immigrants in custody, most for criminal offenses but some just for illegal entry.) If you are a single man or a family from Central America, with no criminal record or prior immigration violation record, and there is no room at the customs facility near where you were apprehended, most likely you will be released to a local social service organization or faith-based migrant shelter in a border town with a notice to appear in court on a certain date. You may stay there or move into the interior of the country.
One thing you are reminded of here: Illegal immigration is a law-and-order issue for people in some border towns and not in others. In San Ysidro, the Border Patrol argues, when the border was wide open or had a weak fence, so many migrants were running across the freeway from Mexico and being hit by cars that authorities put up a highway sign — like “beware of deer crossing” — that showed a family on the run, so drivers would be careful not to hit them.
The areas around San Ysidro that were most actively used by migrants, before a real border barrier was installed, were zones of disorder where residents had foreigners passing through their yards every night, some transporting drugs. Where there is now a proper fence, and crossing the border illegally is virtually impossible, you see shopping centers, schools and new housing.
Indeed, when we went out to the end of the new wall, if you peaked around to the other side, you could see that the Mexican homeowner there had planted trees and created a patio, right next to the wall — because he knew his backyard would no longer be used as a launching pad for human smuggling gangs.
In sum: we need new walls; we need a serious strategy for mitigating climate change and offering economic and governance assistance to countries to our south that are being destabilized by poverty and extreme weather; we need to rethink who is entitled to asylum, so people fleeing economic dislocation don’t overwhelm our borders and harden our hearts to people truly fleeing tyranny; we need to encourage legal immigration of people who can help our country thrive in the 21st century; and we need to partner with Mexico on a Mexican-American plan to manage the flow of migrants through Mexico to our border.
None of these alone will work. Anyone who tells you otherwise has not been to the border.
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