No matter what the Trump administration tries to do — shake up the leadership of federal immigration agencies, force asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico, even build a massive border wall — none of it will do much to affect the current border crisis one way or another.
That’s because the border crisis is actually an asylum crisis. Central American families are getting into the United States using our asylum system, and smugglers and cartels are profiting off of, and encouraging, that demand. This is the crisis, and only Congress can fix it.
Federal border facilities were never designed to handle the volume of families and children that are now turning themselves in along the southern border and claiming asylum, and the situation is getting worse. Data released last week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection show a sharp increase in the month of March across every category, including single adults, with the sharpest increase in family units.
The result is that federal border facilities have reached or exceeded capacity, and immigration officials have responded by discharging massive numbers of migrant families. Texas cities and towns in particular are facing an unprecedented number of families and children who have little or no money, no food, and no place to stay.
On a single day last month, some 1,300 migrants were released in McAllen, according to the McAllen Monitor, where Mayor Jim Darling warned that his city was facing the prospect of “thousands of people — literally — walking the streets, sleeping in doorways, and worse.”
In El Paso, where a makeshift holding pen under a bridge briefly made national headlines in March as a symbol of the chaos on the border, federal facilities are far beyond capacity. Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House migrant shelter, told the Houston Chronicle that federal officials are releasing more than 3,500 migrants a week to his organization.
Smaller towns and cities in Texas are beginning to experience something similar. In February, the tiny town of Quemado, Texas, population 230, saw Border Patrol apprehend a group of 90 migrants, including children as young as 1 year old, as well as a pregnant woman who, upon arrival, went into labor and gave birth.
Before the surge of Central American families and minors, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would coordinate the release of migrants with local nonprofits and try to release only those who had already arranged for travel. But now, the sheer volume of those being taken into custody — an average of 3,000 per day in March — has made that kind of coordination impossible.
Despite massive efforts by Texas municipal governments and nonprofit groups to provide food, shelter and medical care to these families and children, Texas cannot solve this crisis any more than the Trump administration can. Only Congress, which has for years refused to pass immigration reform or adequately secure the border, can solve this problem.
What can Congress do? For starters, lawmakers in both parties can recognize there’s actually a crisis underway. If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on whether to build additional border fencing — President Donald Trump’s wall — they should at least be able to agree that it’s far too easy for migrants to take advantage of our asylum system and gain entry to the U.S.
As it is, almost anyone who arrives with a child on the southern border can get into the country by claiming a “credible fear” if they return to their home country. Because of a court ruling that prohibits the government from detaining children for more than 20 days, families that claim asylum can expect to be released in a matter of days. With a backlog of more than 800,000 cases in our immigration courts, these families can wait years before having their asylum claim heard in court. Very few of them are eventually granted asylum, and many abscond long before they’re ever scheduled to appear in court.
Congress could easily fix this, close the loopholes in our system that are encouraging Central American families to travel north, and thus end the border crisis. Unfortunately, politics seems to be winning over sound policy. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers recently passed a resolution rejecting Trump’s emergency declaration, with some lawmakers questioning the idea that there’s a border crisis at all.
They should come to Texas and see the communities along the border that are straining under the weight of their inaction. Despite heroic efforts from nonprofits, volunteers and local officials, the crisis is getting worse.
Texans are generally sticklers for federalism, and they want the federal government to leave them alone. But this is one situation where the proper role of the federal government, specifically Congress, is to take action. The crisis won’t end until it does.