As our nation’s attention is drawn once again to the southern border and scenes of desperation there, emotions collide.
As many as 15,000 struggling men, women and children, largely Haitian, arrived in the last week desperately trying to find a way into the United States and out of danger and hardship. This is heartbreaking.
While authorities said the makeshift Del Rio camp had been cleared of all migrants by Friday, it is alarming that huge groups of immigrants banging on our doors for entry are either repulsed in ways that are repulsive or allowed entry in ways that are chaotic.
Immigrants come to the border without permission to enter because they believe they can get in and then stay, with the outsized hope that they can gain legal status eventually. They also believe they cannot get in by applying before they come.
Both beliefs are too often true. Both realities must change to end this cycle of distress and lawlessness.
Most prospective immigrants waiting at the border hail from Haiti. Some fled after a presidential assassination in July and a devastating earthquake in August. But most left Haiti years ago and have been living in other countries. They’re trying to get in now because they’ve heard that ongoing disorder in Haiti will prevent the U.S. from deporting them as most seek legal asylum.
That's mostly wrong. The U.S. was sending seven flights a day with about 140 passengers each back to Haiti, although unaccompanied minors and those with small children were allowed to remain at the chaotic border and make an asylum claim.
REAGAN'S AMNESTY SET A TONE
But history gives credence to the belief that migrants who come here illegally can get in and stay. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to 4 million people who were here illegally but that was supposed to represent a hard line: We were told that new, unauthorized arrivals would never again get such a deal.
But 35 years later, 10.5 million more unauthorized immigrants are here, and few in the political world speak seriously of deporting them. President Joe Biden is pushing for their path to citizenship, and rightly so: Most are law-abiding and hardworking, and will make contributions to our society.
But how can we ever convince people not to come illegally when so many have been rewarded for doing so?
Take Haitians as an example. Most seek asylum, the term used when people claim a right to stay here based on danger at home but are already in the U.S.
Our nation would rather people apply for refugee status, which is similar but sought from outside the U.S. It allows for a ruling before the applicant arrives and doesn’t demand someone cross the border and turn oneself in to U.S. officials. But the number of refugees allowed to resettle here, which peaked at 140,000 in 1993, sank slowly since, then dropped 86% under Donald Trump's presidency, with only 11,814 resettled here last year.
A NEW PROCESS IS NEEDED
Growing and speeding the process of screening and accepting refugees applying while they remain outside the U.S. is the biggest step this nation can take to stop asylum-seekers from paying vicious human smugglers a fortune and walking across dangerous terrain for months in order to knock on our door unannounced.
But those who do arrive seeking asylum must be processed quickly, which means far more asylum officers and immigration judges at the border. Many who seek asylum are ordered to report to a hearing at a later date and released. But some never return to complete the process, becoming part of the 10.5 million people here illegally.
Another large segment of that group is foreigners overstaying visas. Others come in illegally with no asylum claim, trusting they can evade deportation, perhaps until the next amnesty.
If we want people to stop coming here illegally, we have to create a system where doing so does not pay. And we have to promote the fact that coming here without documentation or an ironclad asylum claim is a costly, dangerous and useless strategy.
More traditional and legal categories of immigrants like family members of citizens, and highly skilled or needed workers, must be in a line that moves quickly and efficiently and delivers on the promise that the U.S. will welcome such prospective citizens. Those following the rules deserve timely consideration.
The politics of immigration have not changed for decades, except to get uglier. No action is taken because neither side is willing to buck party bases who don’t want to supply their side of the bargain.
The immigration system we have now, or the lack of it, is inhumane, dangerous, and unworkable. It provides neither security nor assurance that those coming here are worthy of entry, and incentivizes illegal entry.
Coming here legally must be made easier. Coming here illegally must be made fruitless. What we see now at the border is what we’ll continue to get unless those standards are met.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.