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Editorial: Border drama’s been brewing for years

No one can feel at all comfortable with the sight of tear gas being used on women and children.

Then again, no one should feel comfortable with hundreds of people – many of them adult men, some throwing rocks – trying to push through the border after overwhelming the Mexican police who tried to stop them.

In many ways, the ugly incident that occurred last weekend in Tijuana on the U.S.-Mexico border, in which U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents unleashed tear gas to disperse the group moving toward them, is a predictable outcome after years of ineptitude and inaction in Congress when it comes to making even minimal fixes to our immigration laws. It hasn’t mattered which parties were in control, and in fact both Democrats and Republicans have failed when they controlled all three branches. That’s just pathetic.

A group of migrants gathered at the border crossing at Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 25 and tried to pressure its way into the United States. (The Associated Press)

So what we have now is thousands of Central American migrants camped out in Mexico – drawing protests from residents there – as they are kept from crossing en masse to the U.S. to file asylum claims. The U.S. is processing only a limited number a day and is insisting – appropriately – that the claims be made in orderly fashion at a port of entry.

It was frustration with this bottleneck and the weekslong processing backup that prompted a crowd to surge forward last Sunday – in a diminished version of the video we have all seen when a huge caravan crashed through Mexico’s southern border and overwhelmed federal police to begin their trek north.

The Mexican government was not amused with the events and has moved to deport up to 100 of those involved.

“These acts of provocation, far from helping achieve their objectives, are in violation of legal migration and could result in a grave incident at the border,” the Interior ministry said in a statement.

President Trump was his usual unhelpful self in making pronouncements about criminal elements and accusing some women of grabbing babies to use as props. Just a bit of humanity on his part would go a long way.

And his order to send military troops to the border is grandstanding – unless it sends an effective message that this isn’t business as usual. If you recall, President Obama and his then-Homeland Security chief tried their own information campaign to discourage mass migration from Central America, essentially telling people that they should not expect to be able to stay in the U.S. simply by showing up here.

Yet Trump has brought the issue to a head, and there is an argument that that needed to be done. Unless, of course, you are OK with an endless stream of caravans making their way from Central America to the U.S. border, where many will seek to enter an overwhelmed queue for asylum. And it’s worth nothing that the asylum claims – which are supposed to be based on individuals’ fear of persecution on one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group – are especially tenuous, given that Mexico has offered the caravan members the ability to remain in Mexico legally and offered them work permits.

That offer makes them economic immigrants seeking a better life and a better job who would rather be here than in Mexico. And that’s not how asylum works. Economic immigrants need to get in the line for legal immigration to the U.S. – which in 2017 had 20 million naturalized citizens and another 13.1 million legal nonresidents. So no, the door has not slammed shut.

If Trump backs down and opens the gates, the U.S. is acknowledging it has no effective border control and an unlimited number of people can present for asylum and then disappear into the U.S. population for years, or forever, as their case is adjudicated.

Congress could, and should, finally step in.

It could start with a fix for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and take that off the table. A judge has blocked Trump’s order doing away with the program but noted that in the end Obama’s order extending protection to that group was likely unconstitutional but rescinding it now would just be too big a mess. True enough. But that clock is ticking. And Congress should simply take action.

Congress also clearly could enact changes making it clear that you can’t enter illegally along the border and then claim asylum. You must present at a port. And, Congress should make it clear that people seeking asylum can be detained if it is deemed appropriate while awaiting the outcome of their request.

None of this touches the issue of the estimated 11 million people living here illegally now. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with at least a system of work permits to allow those people to come out of the shadows, stay legally, fill jobs without suppressing wages, pay taxes and move freely back and forth across the border. Amnesty would be a tougher deal to make, but this would be a huge start.

There are other major issues, such as the need to increase the number of legal immigrants with the kind of job skills needed in a STEM world.

For now, however, if members of Congress’ class of 2019 can’t do the comprehensive immigration reform job that they should, then at the very least they need to step up, work together and finally fix the most glaring problems that ultimately brought a caravan to our southern border.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.