Last month I co-led, with U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., a bipartisan group of 16 members of Congress to our southern border. This trip was the largest bipartisan group to date that has traveled south.
As members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, we went to McAllen, Texas, to gain firsthand knowledge of the situation at the border.
As a former construction company owner, I found the best way to better understand a job site was to talk to the people on the ground doing the work. That’s exactly what we did, and only one word accurately describes what we saw: crisis. A crisis of leadership from both parties has allowed the situation to spiral out of control.
We received operational updates from Customs and Border Protection agents, spoke with asylum-seekers and toured processing facilities and points of entry.
I’m proud of our immigration officials and their response to the difficult situations thrown at them. Under an almost impossible scenario, largely by Congress’ own making, our law enforcement personnel are doing their best with limited resources.
According to one commander, CBP agents now spend upward of 60% of their time and resources providing humanitarian and caretaking needs, rather than the enforcement job their agency is tasked with. This dramatic shift leaves our borders and ports of entry understaffed and overwhelmed. We must implement policies and dedicate resources to ensuring operational control of the border.
Another important aspect of the trip was speaking with asylum-seekers. The majority were from the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — but nationals from countries as far as Pakistan, Russia and China are also routinely migrating through our southern border. These men, women and children told stories of their home countries being torn apart by poverty, violence and failing governments, and of traveling many difficult miles to cross our border.
Almost every single person we spoke with encountered the drug cartels. These vicious criminal organizations prey on individuals, smuggling them into the United States, while charging large sums of money and often cruelly using them for their own purposes. Make no mistake, a sophisticated criminal network and infrastructure is in place moving people, guns and drugs across our southern border.
Since March 2019, according to CBP, around 100,000 migrants are stopped at the border each month. Moreover, in 2018, the Executive Office for Immigration Review received more than 160,000 asylum claims. This increase is almost 100,000 more than was received in 2016. These conditions have accelerated the strain on our asylum system to the breaking point. The U.S. asylum laws are too ambiguous and desperately need updating.
Twenty years of congressional inaction have led to the current situation. We asked personnel on the ground, “What do you need?” While some had differences of opinion, solutions centered around addressing three core issues: 1) changing the Flores settlement; 2) addressing asylum laws; and 3) ensuring enough resources are dedicated to the care of detainees by civilians.
Stemming from a California case decades ago, the Flores settlement, as of 2015, prohibits the government from detaining minors, accompanied or not, for more than 20 days. The Department of Homeland Security indicates that few facilities exist that can house adults and children together. This goes hand in hand with our asylum laws because those requesting asylum proceedings know their children will be released into the country, and thus often the parents will be released too. This is a clear incentive to bring children, many times not even related to the accompanying adult, on the long and dangerous path to our nation.
Asylum laws must change to reflect a 21st-century world, allowing individuals claiming persecution to apply in either their home country or the first country they pass through. This change will relieve immigration courts, detention facilities and the surge at the southern border.
These changes are just a few solutions to these hard issues, which may not be solved tomorrow, the next day, or next month. But Congress cannot continue to shy away. We simply must gain operational control of the border and must provide Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents the support they desperately need.
To do this, we must look beyond political posturing and have serious debates. I’m proud to be part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which looks to policy areas where we can agree. We will continue these discussions in the coming weeks and months, and hopefully come together to find solutions. It’s well past time for Congress to step up, lead and fix this crisis.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker is a Republican from West Lampeter Township who represents the 11th Congressional District. Online contact form: smucker.house.gov; Twitter: @RepSmucker.