BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | APR 29, 2021
“The Southern border is not under control. It’s a mad house. We have car chases on a daily basis. We have immigrants jumping off trains. We have them coming into our schools…coming through people’s yards…most of the time now when your dogs bark at night, you wonder if somebody’s getting in your car or somebody’s fixing to break into your house.” — Uvalde TX Mayor Don McLaughlin, April 2021
The frustrations and fears of people in one small Texas town epitomize but don’t really dramatize nearly enough the scope of the crisis on our Southern border. It is a real and serious crisis, President Biden and his legion of language manipulators notwithstanding. His persistent campaign to add a rosy tint to the crisis is reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s early portrayal of the COVID crisis.
Immigration is one of the perplexing and perpetual issues that have taunted the Republic since the first explorers dropped anchor here, my ancestors and likely some of yours among them.
It has been both a scourge and salvation of our successful experiment in individual, economic and societal freedom. The vast array and diversity of the people our way of life has beckoned here has helped mold the American character. It has also challenged what we have stood for, what we have strived to be. It is hard to calculate the benefits that flow from the American melting pot. But it is also difficult at times to surmount the problems that have spilled over the edges, particularly unlawful entry. Now it has once again gotten away from us; out of our control.
The fault lines for this conundrum are everywhere and the failure to erase them goes back generations from the flood of Europeans who jumped ship to avoid Ellis Island verification in the last century to Central Americans hopping aboard trains and swimming rivers to get here just this Spring.
The last real reform of the immigration system was 35 years ago in the second term of the Reagan presidency. The Immigration Reform and Control Act was intended to increase security on the border, tighten up employment of illegal aliens and provide ‘amnesty” (the term ‘legalization’ was used then) for those in the country illegally before 1982.
Comprehensive attempts to improve conditions since then have failed, despite some valiant efforts at bipartisan compromise and despite the fact that Americans want change. A recent PEW survey found that 48 percent of Americans think illegal immigration is a very big problem, about the same percentage who think the coronavirus is a very big problem.
The political system, however, continues to shun solutions; the politicians, in the end, won’t settle for anything less than all or nothing and mostly end up giving us nothing, except more frustration, more hostility, and more problems. Immigration is a humanitarian issue, not a partisan issue, but it has been made one. Congressional Republicans see it as a path to majority status next year and Democrats see it as fulfillment of their progressive agenda, which, I guess, they see as a path to building on their majorities next year.
Immigration reform is the worst failure of the Biden Administration in its infant life, despite the President’s mention of it at the conclusion of his address to Congress, which seemed more a gesture to the politics of the crisis than a solution. I don’t question his motivation, but what steps he has taken have been in the wrong direction.
The President has reversed much of what good the Trump Administration did. He has signed 94 Executive Orders like they were greeting cards, and just recently he declared America’s courthouses sanctuaries where Federal agents cannot arrest those suspected of violating Federal laws. He has stumbled every step of the way, with questionable appointments, indecision, reversals, and a lack of truthfulness.
The cruelest impact of the crisis to me has been the treatment and ultimate fate of young children being left alone at the border by confused, misled, and presumably distraught parents and more tragic the cruel coyotes who profit from their desperation.
Some are dumped on the shores of the Rio Grande River, some just tossed over the barriers. Some are marched across deserts or packed on trains or in sem-trucks. Some don’t make it. We all recall the photo of a 2-year-old baby in the arms of her father floating on the Mexican banks of the Rio Grande. Death tolls in one area of Texas already exceed all of last year. A horrific crash of an SUV in California this year resulted in 13 deaths, including children.
The children who do make it across end up in the hands of nonprofit organizations with inadequate resources, or Border Patrol agents who are taken off the front lines to babysit, or they are confined to badly overcrowded shelters longer than the law allows. President Biden discovered he can’t build shelters fast enough for all of those who accepted his early invitations to drop in. The courts can’t handle the year-long clog of cases, and healthcare providers can’t keep up putting salve on the mental and physical scars.
And because of restrictive and sometimes cruel immigration laws, children are released into the country without enough supervision to get them to relatives or keep them safe.
Take, for example, the journey of a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl who was released to await her asylum hearing in overworked courts.
Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times told her story this month. She and her father were sent to the temporary Chicago home of Concepcion Malinek, “a one-time nun turned human smuggler.” She slept with 20 other teens. Instead of enrolling her in school Malinek “got the girl a fake ID showing she was 28 and, according to court documents sent the teen to work in a cold-sandwich factory alongside her father. Malinek took most of their pay to use toward the ‘debt’ she claimed the family owed her,” Dinan wrote. Malinek was verbally abusive, the girl said, and told parents that if anyone squealed, she would have them deported and keep their kids, federal investigators were told.
Related to the plight of the children is the new surge in “fake families,” the practice of crossing the border with a child who isn’t yours. Some children are used in this scam repeatedly. Dinan reported that: “Fake families plagued border authorities during the 2019 surge, and experts say they are pouring through again this year. Yet the Homeland Security Department‘s use of DNA testing to validate family relationships has plummeted more than 90 percent this year.”
The humanitarian crisis at the border is just one of many crises emanating from our failure to improve the system.
- Sanctuary city policies prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from apprehending violent criminals. Some have been deported and returned to commit more crimes. Orange County CA alone released 2,100 illegal aliens back into the community between 2018 and 2020 despite ICE detainers placed on every single one of them, the agency reported last year.
- Drug trafficking remains a scourge on the country. A good share of it can be traced directly to the border and overwhelmed personnel. The Congressional Research Service reported to the 116th Congress that “nationwide heroin seizures reached 7,979 kg in 2017, with 3,090 kg (39%) seized at the Southwest border, up from about 2,000 kg seized at the Southwest border a decade earlier. In addition to heroin, officials have become increasingly concerned with the trafficking of fentanyl, particularly non-pharmaceutical, illicit fentanyl. Fentanyl can be mixed with heroin and/or other drugs, sometimes without the consumer’s knowledge, and has been involved in an increasing number of opioid overdoses. “The fentanyl, the report said, comes mostly from China and Mexico.
- The number of illegal immigrants crossing our borders is record-breaking. Last month alone, the number of unaccompanied children and individuals in family units totaled 18,663, a new record. The total for the first three months of this year is 52,904, according to Statista.com.
- A month ago, according to the Washington Post, the Health and Human Services shelters for children were already full with more than 11,000 teens and children. According to the Wall Street Journal “the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which runs a network of child-welfare shelters …has exhausted its $1.3 billion budget.
- Immigration crossings maybe becoming virus super-spreaders for the coronavirus. Thousands of immigrants are being released along roadsides, in parking lots, and in fast-food restaurants with just their paperwork for court dates, with no masks, no vaccinations, and little or no testing. Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot told the Washington Times “These individuals aren’t staying on the border. They’re traveling to the interior of the United States and there is no response from DHW on how they’re going to adequately monitor any of these individuals to ensure they’ve done a 14-day self-isolation.
Those are just a small sampling of the problems that taken together comprise the crisis.
There are solutions. They are well-known and have been amply debated for decades. I wrote about them in 2010, and they are very similar to those proposed recently by former President George W. Bush.
Bush, in an op-ed introducing his new book of immigrant portraits, discussed the failure of the nation to come to terms with the unending influx of those who are desperately chasing their dreams to our borders.
“The short answer,” he said, “is that the issue has been exploited in ways that do little credit to either party. And no proposal on immigration will have credibility without confidence that our laws are carried out consistently and in good faith.”
The former chief Executive advocated a pathway for “dreamers” brought here as children. He also advocated more security at the border. “We need a secure and efficient border, and we should apply off the necessary resources—manpower, physical barriers, advanced technology, streamlined and efficient ports of enty and a robust legal immigration system—to assure it.” He also urged a modernized asylum system “that provides humanitarian support and appropriate legal channels for refugees to pursue their cases in a timely manner.” He proposed increased legal immigration, focused on employment and skills. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants here now would be “fundamentally unfair” to those waiting their turn ro become citizens, “but they must be brought out of the shadows and gradually given an opportunity to earn legal residency and citizenship.”
Unlike other monumental issues we face, there is much Congress and the states can do to ameliorate the crisis we face. It is not a matter of simple solutions. There are none, but in this case even the details are within reach if we will only stretch our tolerance, our common sense and our values far enough to reach them.
If not, the alternative is to unpack the hammer and chisel and whack away at the inscription from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus. You can find it inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.