Commentary: Setting record straight on what’s happening at southern border

El Paso, Texas, USA-October 11, 2020: Fence along the U.S. Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.

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Irony accompanies migratory birds as they fly past my window near the U.S.-Mexico border. They come and go as they please. No drama in their lives. No spectacle on their journey.

Yet down here on the ground, reports about unaccompanied migrant children arriving at that border and migrant families being released into the United States have become a daily trend. The humanitarian tragedy compelling migrants to journey hundreds of miles to our border has been exploited for political benefits. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we are accustomed to this.

But the crisis unfolding at the border is not new. Spikes in border arrivals occurred in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019. What is the difference now?

The approach the Biden administration is taking to address the migrant flow is new, as are the number of migrants arriving at the border and COVID-19’s constraints on assisting both migrants and immigration officials.

The current situation

Mexico has stopped accepting some migrant families, and the U.S. government has altered a couple of immigration policies.

First, the government—with the help of the United Nations—began allowing orderly entry of migrants who lived in poverty more than two years under the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “the Remain in Mexico policy.”

Second, the government began exempting unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing their home countries for compelling humanitarian reasons from its COVID-19 order, better known as Title 42, authorizing rapid expulsion of undocumented migrants at the border.

Under the previous administration, the U.S. government expelled almost all immigrants, including unaccompanied migrant children, through Title 42. Christians and numerous faith groups disavowed the practice.

Still, while most migrants continue to be expelled, exempting unaccompanied migrant children and families who have justifiable cause to fear returning home has overwhelmed the immigration system.

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A backlog of migrant children in border patrol’s custody and the flow of migrant families released into the country are testing the limits of immigration authorities, local governments, transportation systems and the governmental organizations assisting migrants and immigration officials alike.

Pastor Carlos Navarro, who leads Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville to feed, clothe and shelter immigrants in Brownsville, stresses, “The issue is not the increase in the number of migrants, but COVID-19.”

The pandemic is affecting everything, from the number of volunteers willing to assist in the ministry to the capacity of organizations to help migrants, he says, explaining: “The COVID-19 protocols slow down the whole process, because you can’t serve the same amount of people as you used to. Also, you can’t congregate as many people in one space, and, understandably, there aren’t as many volunteers willing to risk their health.”

Root causes

Meanwhile, expelled migrants continue to enter the United States, new migrants arrive at Mexico’s northern border and another migrant caravan is organizing in Central America. All this was predictable. In fact, on the day Biden took office, I wrote a column noting migrant caravans were forming and heading for the southern border.

This escalation of border activity is not surprising; for years, the U.S. government has refused to address factors driving migration and to propose a regional solution.

Climate change has produced unprecedented drought in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, leaving millions of people hungry and without work. They believe they have no alternative but to move north. Studies predict 4 million Central Americans will become climate migrants by 2050.

Thousands of asylum seekers have fled persecution from organized crime, which cemented control over some Central American countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other immigrants have left home to avoid domestic violence.

Some are fleeing their own governments, which are unable or unwilling to tackle corruption. Moreover, since the 20th century, the U.S. government has intervened politically and militarily to protect its commercial interests in Central America, contributing to instability.

Last year, hurricanes decimated the region. According to UNICEF, the storms left 200 people dead and 5.3 million others—including 1.8 million children—in need of assistance. That report indicates the hurricanes destroyed 200,000 hectares of staple foods and cash crops.

The solutions

In the short term, the U.S. government must continue to produce emergency beds and relocate minors as quickly as possible.

To become a licensed foster parent, click here to learn how. Providers are looking to expand capacity, and they particularly seek bilingual candidates. If your church wants to assist in this process, encourage members to become licensed, and help them print the documentation they need to become foster parents.

Finally, Congress must acknowledge migration does not happen in a vacuum. The only sustainable solution is the one it has ignored for decades—reforming the immigration system and addressing root causes of migration.

The situation will continue to mushroom if Congress continues to ignore it. “Now is not the time” is a horrible argument. Congress could have stopped this crisis if it acted years ago, and the crisis will persist for years if Congress doesn’t act now.

President Biden proposed the Citizenship Act of 2021, which includes a section on addressing the root causes of migration and managing the southern border. Even if bipartisan support cannot be achieved for immigration reform, Congress still can agree on and respond to root causes of immigration.

Congress also can re-introduce the Central American Women and Children Protection Act introduced with bipartisan support in 2019. You can urge your elected officials to support and co-sponsor CACPA by clicking here.

Lately, I have seen legislators who don’t represent nearby communities visit the border—taking pictures and making videos—but not present solutions for the problems. Appallingly, they offer only excuses when asked for legislative solutions to the problems they claim to abhor.

Now is not the time for excuses. Immigration reform must repair a system that doesn’t meet the needs of anyone anymore. The current immigration system fails to meet the economic needs of our businesses, the family reunification needs of our citizens, immigration officials’ need to provide streamlined-yet-humane law enforcement, and the humanitarian needs of our suffering neighbors. Who, other than private detention-center and security-services contractors, benefits from this system?

This is a time bomb, and inaction is not an option. I wonder what migratory birds think about life down here as they watch from above.

Fellowship Southwest provides ongoing financial support to pastors who serve migrants all along the U.S.-Mexico border. You can help these pastors and their ministries by donating to the Fellowship Southwest Immigrant Relief Ministry by clicking here.

Elket Rodríguez, an attorney and minister, lives on the U.S.-Mexico border, in Harlingen, Texas. He is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s and Fellowship Southwest’s immigrant and refugee specialist.

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