Groundhog Day on Immigration

Vector sketch drawing of a crowd of people, rear view.

Here in Central Texas, a six-hour drive from the southern border, we regret “the problems” as we drink from tall bottles of Longhorn beer or sip Chardonnay from plastic cups to wash down our tacos. Instead of seeking solutions impacting lives North and South, we’re pressed to the Red or Blue political lines that have prevented compromise for decades.

Migrants’ problems seem universal today, as people flee war and political instability in Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, and Indonesia, drought brought on by climate change throughout Africa, economic hardship and cartel violence upend homes in Mexico, Columbia, Venezuela, and Central America—essentially all over the world, we ponder the southern border once again.

Someone who lives along the Texas border, a young rancher in Brackettville, Texas, experiences daily intrusions onto his land and forbids his children from playing in the yard. He wants solutions: “We need to make immigration laws much easier and more accessible for the people who generally want to be here for good reasons,” he told the Washington Post. (“Texas uses aggressive tactics to arrest migrants as Title 42 ends,” May 14, 2023).

Title 42 vs. Title 8

On May 11, the Trump-era Title 42 expulsion policy ended. Put in place to enforce against the fear-of-Covid, the policy returned most immigrants seeking asylum to their original country. But now its replacement, Title 8, allows for a pro bono attorney and an initial interview of one’s case by phone. If asylum is denied, migrants are returned home under “expedited removal.” Now prior to reaching the US border, migrants are required to seek asylum in Mexico or another country on the way to the United States to reduce the surge at the border. After being detained more than once, a migrant will be prevented from entering the U.S. for five years. Migrants can apply for asylum via an app (though complaints about the delays in obtaining appointments online).

As the Title 42 restriction lifted, fears were reinforced by anti-immigrant groups saying that this would “acerbate an already raging immigration crisis,” according to the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). But as of May 14, that human tsunami has not materialized over the weekend, with just 4200 on Sunday. Moreover, El Paso, a key entry point, registered 639 on Saturday, down substantially from May 10, when 2,131 crossed. Nevertheless, Homeland Security expects more migrants in the coming weeks.

On May 11, the GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act” 219-213, which would provide the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with “the manpower, infrastructure, and technology it needs and end incentives to violate our immigration laws.”

The U.S. Senate, under Democratic control, has not taken up H.R. 2 because it fails to provide a path to citizenship for people who pay taxes and have been working in the country for 20 years or more. Nor does it address the plight of the children brought across the border illegally up to 30 years ago (DREAMERS), some of whom are in college or have obtained a green card and have joined the U.S. military.

The last Immigration Reform and Control Act passed Congress on November 6, 1986, nearly 40 years ago during Reagan’s administration, when Democrats controlled both houses. All other attempts with a divided Congress have failed. For example, the 2010 Dream Act proposed by Obama’s term provided they spend two years in college or the military. Unfortunately, it only passed in the House and has failed multiple times in the years since.

The only time Congress seriously attempted to pass bipartisan immigration reform since 1986 came on May 25, 2006. The Republican-led Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 by a substantial vote of 62 to 36. Twenty-three Republicans, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the current minority leader, supported the bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA). The statement paired border security desired by the GOP (fencing, radar, aerial surveillance, and added personnel) with a provision offering undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. a way to earn citizenship and would create a guest worker program. President George W. Bush urged passage, and big business and labor unions supported it. Unfortunately, the House never put it on the calendar for a vote, instead backing a bill for border security, the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law before the 2006 midterms. Immigration has always been a political football.

Why risk the dangerous trip to the U.S.?

Why would someone take such drastic measures to escape their country and leave virtually everything, sometimes even each other, behind? I had a better idea after reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. While it is a novel, much research went into the writing. The reader sees inside the terrors of one woman fleeing north with her son after the cartel killed her journalist husband and murdered ten of their relatives gathered for a birthday barbeque. She survives the initial attack because she hides with her son in the bathroom. She abandons the bookstore she owns, packs food and money from her now-dead grandmother’s House, and in desperation, learns to hop a train going north on the first leg of the trip. The book explains why some people won’t stop trying to enter America until they die or finally do. It’s desperation.

A Centuries’ Old Tug-of-War

But this crisis does not spring from the ground like a new crop of corn or as a story depicted in a novel. Instead, it has been a part of the U.S.-Mexican tug-of-war for decades; some could trace it to the formation of Texas, whose southern border grew out of Mexico—we’ve been trading people for centuries. Just back then, both nations sought out homesteaders to till the land.

In 1837, Mexico passed legislation banning slavery, nearly three decades before Americans started the process. As a result, thousands of American Blacks fled the plantations for freedom in Mexico. However, when their “owners” came across the border to kidnap the enslaved people, Mexicans were not accommodating, according to Alice Baumgartner, PhD., of UCLA. She researched records in northern Mexico from 1819, taking seven years to write South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico.

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the U.S. received a significant portion of northern Mexico in the Treaty of Hidalgo. It conferred U.S. citizenship on Mexicans who chose to remain on the “undeveloped” land claimed by Native Americans who did not want to give it up. A bit later, in 1830, President Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, signed the Indian Removal Act, which confiscated Native American lands in the east and forced their removal west of the Mississippi.  

Don’t think the Border Patrol is some modern invention. Congress passed funding to create it in 1924. But this crisis will not end by purchasing a fleet of Dodge Chargers to paint white and black, hiring new battalions of border agents, or installing 30-foot tall steel rods in the ground for 2000 miles across our southern border. Nor will the threat of imprisonment or a speedy return across the border deter those who attempt to crawl across the 100-degree desert, swim the Rio Grande under darkness, or pay coyotes $6,000+ to smuggle them to America. Would they try this if they could endure the poverty and lawlessness in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Columbia, or Venezuela? People who fear for their lives from the cartels or can’t feed their families will not automatically stay home, even though they might prefer to be there.

America cannot permit entry to anyone who wants to come into the country. But failure to develop a sensible immigration policy to address our country’s needs is irresponsible and ensures continuing turmoil at the border. Unfortunately, it appears that the political party out of power prefers to see disturbing video streamed from the border as evidence of their opponent’s failure—just waiting to pump the video into the next election’s campaign ads.

We can’t solve the world’s problems or even those of Central America by attempting to close America’s gates or removing the beacon from the Statute of Liberty. We know that selling illegal drugs in America helps fund the cartels in Mexico and Central America, while Americans are dying from the uber-addictive fentanyl (80 to 100 times as potent as morphine) that feeds the crisis. The crisis has many layers in both the U.S. and Mexico—the lucrative drug and people smuggling traffic by coyotes, international trade, (How many people are aware that Mexico is our number one trading partner?) a younger, upward mobile population in Mexico vs. dropping birth-rate and aging population in the U.S. Then there’s the FEAR of some Americans of black and brown people. It’s a complex brew.

Turning our backs on our next-door neighbors without attempting to address the situation has not been the American way. I know Americans have worked to train Mexican law enforcement to deal with the drug war, but we’ve seen the complications as drug lords in both countries gain money and power. American Presidents have worked with Mexico’s leaders to address trade and other vital issues. Our unemployment rate, which is at an all-time low, begs for workers to build U.S. productivity—a win-win for both sides. Immigration is a multi-layered problem that deserves more than smiles and handshakes, or are we condemned to seeing humans thrown up against concertina wire endlessly—an international Groundhog Day.