From the Hill: From Rhetoric to Reality at the Border

In this month’s From the Hill, we look at recent immigration and border-related trends, announcements, policies, and events.

In the past few months, we’ve seen a number of policies aimed at increasing enforcement at the US/MX border and deterring migrants from seeking safety and security in the US. Before we get into those specific policies, however, let’s take a step back.

UPDATE (as of 11/09/2018)
As mentioned below, the administration is seeking to systematically cut off access to protections for migrants seeking safety and security. Yesterday, they added another tool to their enforcement toolbox. As we lay out in this month’s From the Hill, seeking asylum is legal and a human right. Upholding this right should be a value and priority. Unfortunately, the administration moved yesterday to bar migrants from asylum protection if they enter the U.S. outside a port of entry at the southern border.  

The U.S. is required by our own law and international obligations to provide access to asylum. The administration issued a ‘proclamation’ that ignores both of these things unilaterally. Asylum seekers are already being turned away at ports of entry, as documented by the Columban border ministry team. In place for 90 days with possible extensions, this policy is one more tool the administration is using to shut off access to protections for those our faith calls us to stand with. Read the CCAO’s statement on this policy here.  

In the past few months, we’ve seen a number of policies aimed at increasing enforcement at the US/MX border and deterring migrants from seeking safety and security in the US. Before we get into those specific policies, however, let’s take a step back. 

What’s the big picture?
A lot of the current rhetoric is centered around migrants arriving at the southern border. Much of it paints a picture of crisis and danger and asserts that this crisis cannot be solved without implementing extreme enforcement and deterrent measures. But what is actually happening?

On October 14th, a group of families and individuals from Central America began a ‘caravan’ to travel through Mexico to the United States in order to seek safety and protection.

Fleeing violence, instability, and poverty in their home countries, this group of people banded together in a caravan to protect themselves from the dangers of the journey. Approximately ¼ of the migrants are children.

They are currently making their way through Mexico and it is unknown when they will reach the US. Estimates on the number vary from 3,500-7,000 people. Some important points to remember about the caravan:

  • The migrants are fleeing incredibly dangerous conditions in their home countries.
  • They have the right to seek asylum where they feel safe - no law forces individuals to seek asylum in Mexico.
  • It is legal to seek asylum in the United States, and the United States has a moral and legal obligation to consider these asylum claims.
  • Migrants traveling through Mexico are incredibly vulnerable - they face dangerous terrain and criminal networks.
  • This is not a crisis of numbers -the caravan does not represent a massive influx of people to the US/Mexico border.

While it is true that apprehensions at the border are the highest since the president took office, historic trends show a different story. There has been an 80% increase in apprehensions of families traveling with children since the summer. However, the total number of apprehensions (which include individuals as well as families) along the border is well below the historic highs of the early 2000s.

In 2000, the Border Patrol (BP) made 1,643,679 arrests. So far this fiscal year, BP agents have made 369,579 arrests. To put those numbers in context, the rate of apprehensions at the border is less than a quarter of what it was in 2000, yet we’ve seen a doubling of Border Patrol agents since then and huge increases to the Border Patrol’s budget.

How is the administration responding to the caravan and migrants generally?
Instead of responding with welcoming and humane policies that are rooted in reality, the administration is creating a narrative and a system of policies intent on increasing enforcement and limiting access to protections. In an announcement Thursday, November 1st, the president outlined a number of additional measures he will attempt to add to the enforcement toolbox. (You can read our statement on his announcement here.)

So what does this toolbox look like now?

Militarizing the border
Physical barriers continue to be constructed along the southern border. This includes downtown El Paso, TX, where Columbans live and serve, and Brownsville, TX, where the Catholic bishop just announced his refusal to allow government officials to use church property for border wall construction.

The Bishop of El Paso released a statement in response to the construction, as well:

"The border wall is treating a symptom and not a cause. It is a symbol of a failure on the part of our country to resolve the issues that could be dealt with by a comprehensive immigration reform."  

You can see construction of the wall happening in downtown El Paso here

Not only does construction continue, but the President also announced this week that he is sending 5,200 military troops to the border. This adds to the roughly 2,000 National Guard troops currently deployed to the border and the 16,605 Border Patrol agents stationed there.  While military personnel are legally prohibited from engaging in immigration enforcement, the domestic deployment of such a high number of troops sends a message of fear and hostility not only to migrants but to the border communities where they will be stationed.

In response to the president’s citation of ‘national security’ as the rationale for this decision, former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Gil Kerlikowske said, “…anyone who has spent more than a day on the border knows that this isn’t a national security issue. This is a broken immigration issue.”

Additionally, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are limiting access to Ports of Entry, sometimes closing the lanes to cross the border and even temporarily shutting down an entire international bridge. Not only does this limit access to asylum for migrants, it affects the day to day life of border communities and stifles cross-border trade.

Limiting access to protections
For months now, CBP agents have been turning away asylum seekers at Ports of Entry along the border. Their strategies for denying people access vary, but the United States’ law and international obligations do not: seeking asylum is legal and we have a responsibility to provide access to the system.

Columbans on the border have been accompanying people as they attempt to ask for asylum on the border and see firsthand the consequences of turning away asylum seekers who have already suffered so much in their journey to seek safety and security.

You can see other pictures of the turn-backs here

The administration is seeking to further cut off access to asylum, a critical protection for the most vulnerable, by restricting who qualifies for asylum and attempting to deny those who seek asylum between Ports of Entry along the border.

Additionally, the detention of migrants, including asylum seekers and their children, has been rising rapidly. By ramping up the number of detention facilities (which are often incredibly inadequate and run by for-profit corporations), attempting to change the rules around how long children can be held in detention, and threatening to detain all asylum seekers indefinitely, the administration is limiting people’s ability to access protection at every step of the process.

What is Congress doing?
Currently Congress is on recess in the lead up to the mid-term elections. They will return to Washington, DC with a limited number of days in session before the end of the year. The major agenda item for Congress is finishing the job of funding the federal government.

Namely, they must decide how to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the department that funds operations such as deportations, migrant detention, and border enforcement.

Each of these areas has seen significant increases in funding in recent years. This funding is used to carry out policies such as family separation, detention of families and asylum seekers, turn backs of asylum seekers, and other harmful policies. Additionally, the agencies carrying out these policies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), often do not operate with the necessary transparency and accountability.  

When Congress returns from recess, they will have the opportunity to reduce funding for these accounts and invest in other solutions, such as community-based alternatives to detention. President Trump’s announcement on Thursday, however, attempts to lay the groundwork for increases in funding for these agencies.

What can you do?
When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, he addressed a joint session of Congress. In that address, he made specific mention of global migration and who we are called to be in the face of this phenomenon:

On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

As people of faith and people of hope, we can paint a different picture. We know there are more just, humane, and smarter solutions. Continuous militarization, enforcement, and dehumanization of migrants are unsustainable and counter to the Gospel.

So how can we stand in solidarity with our migrant sisters and brothers and ensure our nation lives up to its ideals?

  1. Sign up to receive our border solidarity toolkit! A new, updated version will be released in the coming days and we will send it to everyone who registers.