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Editorial: Something’s gotta give on the border

America is a generous country, and Americans are generous people.

One recent example? Sofia Adriana Perla Clavel, a 3-year-old from El Salvador here for heart surgery performed by Presbyterian pediatric surgeon Dr. Bill Stein. The four-hour procedure was successful, and Sofia, along with her mother, Yena Beatriz Clavel, celebrated a very special third birthday for the little girl in Albuquerque before returning home this month.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to accept legal immigrants. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 278,000 foreign nationals obtained lawful permanent resident status in the third quarter of fiscal 2018 with Mexico, Cuba, China and India topping the list. Nearly half of those were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. During the same time period, about 16,000 refugees were admitted, with the Congo, Burma, Bhutan, Ukraine, Eritrea and Afghanistan among the leading countries of origin.

As of 2017, we had 22 million naturalized citizens – about half of the foreign-born population living here.

These are examples of a welcoming America – not one with doors closed to the world. Indeed, it is a country founded on immigration. But to be a country you have to have borders, and until late last week, with laws never designed to deal with the current situation, we effectively have not had a southern border when it comes to the mass migration of mostly Central Americans showing up to seek asylum.

It is uncertain what the impact will be of Homeland Security’s decision to have migrants seeking asylum return to Mexico as they wait the months, or often years, it takes for their cases to wind through the court system. Previously, they were allowed to wait in the U.S. – most often with relatives.

That practice contributed to a crisis that comes with a huge but yet-to-be calculated price tag for American taxpayers. Some of the migrants need medical care. Their children are entitled to early childhood services and public education while they await processing of their claims. And that’s just as they arrive.

Yet in typical tone-deaf fashion, President Trump has only exacerbated the situation by declaring an “emergency” to build his wall after Congress refused to fund it. (It’s worth noting then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, declared an emergency and said that if need be New Mexico would build a wall – or fence.)

While the courts will decide whether Trump has that authority, even if he does, his physical barrier will take years and won’t stop the flood of asylum-seekers.

And it is a flood.

Traveling by foot, hopping trains and recently being bused en mass by smugglers right to the border, the number of migrants – mostly from Central America – seeking asylum is staggering. The number in February alone topped 76,000. Hundreds of thousands have presented themselves since last fall. That, despite the fact that the chances of gaining refugee status are slim. The highest number of refugees accepted in a year under President Obama from ALL of Latin America and the Caribbean was about 5,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Customs and Border Patrol has in part been transformed into a concierge service struggling to arrange transportation and medical care for the throngs, with many crossing the border in large groups in remote areas.

Under court rulings, anyone who sets foot on U.S. soil can claim asylum. Until this weekend, almost all of those with children were released with GPS ankle monitors and heading off to destinations throughout the United States where they may have a relative or sponsor while they waited for their cases to be heard.

That all was expected to change when Homeland Security extended its migrant protection protocols to the El Paso sector, which covers El Paso and New Mexico, this weekend. The protocols require asylum seekers to return to Mexico until their cases are heard. Officials hope that will reduce the mass migration.

Smugglers, as detailed by the Journal’s Angela Kocherga in a remarkable “8 hours on the border” series of stories (read them at ABQJournal.com), take immigrants’ money and feed them a story that they can stay in the U.S. – particularly if they have a minor child with them. And there was enough truth in those statements – the fact migrants have been allowed to remain for such a lengthy period while their cases are pending – to give them credence. That’s now changed.

Of course, a court challenge to the migrant protection protocols could force Homeland Security to reverse course and once again allow asylum-seekers to remain in the United States. Critics contend the migrants are not safe in Juarez, which is already overwhelmed with thousands waiting to enter through a port of entry to seek asylum. The U.S. is limiting that number to a few dozen a day.

As the suffering continues on both sides of the border, there are no simple answers. It’s not a new problem as Congressional majorities in both political parties have ignored their responsibility to pass comprehensive immigration reform for more than a decade. Now, Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate and Trump is in the White House.

All our elected officials – especially those in border states – should stop pandering to their base and find a solution that includes a fix for DACA kids and stems the flow seeking asylum based on bad information. The migrant protection protocol could help – though it creates a huge burden on Mexico. How about significantly increasing the number of immigration judges and expediting hearings near the border? Renewing the campaign under President Barack Obama to tell people in Central America you can’t stay if you get here?

Because this is a crisis and unfair to agents working, and residents living, on the border; American taxpayers footing the tab; and tens of thousands pulling up roots on a false promise of asylum.

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.

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