I’ve been on the road a lot for my job and recently crossed the northern U.S. border from Ontario into New York, and then the southern border at El Paso, Texas. I was struck at how different the atmosphere is at our two major land borders.
The U.S.-Canadian border is like clearing security at a gated community: “What are you here for? How long will you be? Thank you. Have a good day.” Canadians, even at their border, are unfailingly polite.
Crossing into Mexico was entirely different. I was there as part of the National Association of Counties Task Force on Immigration Reform to see the border up close. I wasn’t prepared for what we encountered.
While there was armed staff at both borders, the southern border appears much more militarized. Everyone in uniform carried a pistol, even when they were overseeing refugee toddlers. There were stockpiles of military-style rifles. This is, after all, a battlefield in the multibillion-dollar international drug trade.
But there is something more. As we traveled along the Rio Grande, Border Patrol came across a family from Honduras seeking asylum that had crossed the river into the U.S. The mom, dad and two young daughters had spent two weeks to make it that far. They told the agent they were fleeing Honduras and the random violence that had threatened the family’s safety.
These days, that’s not enough to win asylum in the U.S.
We saw the family again, just minutes later, at the Border Patrol processing center. There, they received a quick health screen to make sure they weren’t carrying a highly contagious illness, such as chickenpox or scarlet fever. Once cleared, the father was separated from the children and their mother. Border Patrol officials explained that up to 30% of those presenting themselves as families weren’t — at least under our present legal definition.
Grandparents and siblings over 18 don’t count as a family in the U.S. system. That seems cruel and culturally insensitive. So many of these refugee families are Hispanic and Catholic with intergenerational care part of their culture. U.S. rules ignore this. Agents say their hands are tied by policy from Washington, D.C. Department of Homeland Security officials say they are just following policies and laws set by others.
But refugees are caught in a broken system that dehumanizes people and treats them as potential terrorists, or “criminals and rapists” as our president has said. Witnessing the reality, you go through alternating bouts of tears and rage.
A bit later, we visited a refugee facility in Juarez. The Mexican government set them up when the Trump administration refused to allow asylum-seekers to remain in the U.S. Mexican troops were present but unarmed. Instead, they were serving three hot meals a day from a large mobile kitchen. Juarez businesses had already hired some 80 of the refugees. An El Paso County official noted they had vacant jobs, too, but U.S. federal policy — and immigration politics — wouldn’t allow refugees to be hired.
That captures the inherent immigration dilemma. Enforcement is spread across several agencies. Rules are often contradictory, or needlessly restrictive. For example, federal agencies aren’t allowed to hire early-childhood practitioners to provide child care but instead use armed Border Patrol staff. There is no cohesive, comprehensive holistic approach.
Immigration has become a political hot button punched by both parties. It is complicated by a president spreading falsehoods, stoking fears, and playing the race and economic cards. The immigration issue is detached from the very real human drama on our southern border.
At the Juarez camp, a small girl ran up and hugged one of the county officials. These children and their parents aren’t a threat to America. If anything, they are living testimonials to the American ideals emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty.
The present system is cruel, dehumanizing and a threat to our long-term economic well-being. We must weave a new societal fabric that creates a place for undocumented people as well as those fleeing tyranny and violence. Immigration has enriched my life: My daughters were born in Korea and my daughter-in-law in Brazil. Our economy will not work without immigrants — from bringing crops from the fields to the kitchen table to innovative breakthroughs in science and technology to creating new businesses.
I keep thinking about the Honduran family. They saw America as a beacon of opportunity. The U.S. once proudly held that reputation globally. In King County, we’ve adopted policies to welcome immigrants, including those escaping violence in their native country. It is time to set aside partisan politics and re-establish by federal policy that we will be a nation for all.