The U.S. Immigration System May Have Reached a Breaking Point

Michael D. Shear, Miriam Jordan and Manny Fernandez, New York Times, April 10, 2019

It was never like this before.

The migrants come now in the middle of the night or in the bright light of day. Men and women arrive by the hundreds, caked with dirt, with teens and toddlers in tow. They jump the small fences in remote parts of Texas, and they gather on the hot pavement at the main border crossing in California. Tired and fearful, they look for the one thing that they pray will allow them to stay in the United States, at least for a while: a Border Patrol agent.

Gone are the days when young, strong men waited on the Tijuana River levees for their chance to wade across the water, evade capture and find work for the summer. These days, thousands of people a day simply walk up to the border and surrender. Most of them are from Central America, seeking to escape from gang violence, sexual abuse, death threats and persistent poverty. The smugglers have told them they will be quickly released, as long as they bring a child, and that they will be allowed to remain in the United States for years while they pursue their asylum cases.

The very nature of immigration to America changed after 2014, when families first began showing up in large numbers. The resulting crisis has overwhelmed a system unable to detain, care for and quickly decide the fate of tens of thousands of people who claim to be fleeing for their lives. For years, both political parties have tried — and failed — to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, mindful that someday the government would reach a breaking point.

That moment has arrived. The country is now unable to provide either the necessary humanitarian relief for desperate migrants or even basic controls on the number and nature of who is entering the United States.

The immigration courts now have more than 800,000 pending cases; each one takes an average of 700 days to process. And because laws and court rulings aimed at protecting children prohibit jailing young people for more than 20 days, families are often simply released. They are dropped off at downtown bus stations in places like Brownsville, Tex., where dozens last week sat on gray metal benches, most without money or even laces on their shoes, heading for destinations across the United States.

At the current pace of nearly 100,000 migrants each month, officials say more than a million people will have tried to cross the border in a 12-month period. {snip}

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An ineffective ‘not welcome’ message

For President Trump, the situation at the border has generated red-hot fury. It erupted again on Sunday as he abruptly forced out Kirstjen Nielsen, his long-embattled homeland security secretary, for what he considered her failure to put an end to the surge of migrants.

In recent days, the president has landed on a dark new message that, if taken literally, could mean an end to all immigration — legal and illegal — across the Mexican border.

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“The system is full,” the president said in California on Friday, standing in front of the rusting iron slats of the border wall that he wants to expand for hundreds of miles across the country’s southern border. “Whether it’s asylum, whether it’s anything you want, it’s illegal immigration. We can’t take you anymore.”

Yet, perversely, the president’s own anti-immigrant rhetoric has helped supercharge the pipeline of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Smugglers lately have been buying radio ads in Central America, warning that Mr. Trump is about to shut down all immigration. {snip}

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Experts say the president is not wrong when he says that “legal loopholes” in America’s immigration system are partly responsible for encouraging migrants to bring children like Jeremias on a dangerous journey that in some cases ends in tragedy. {snip}

Christopher Cabrera, a vice president of the local union of Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, pulled out his phone last week and scrolled through dozens of pictures he has taken out in the field: Groups of more than 100 people turning themselves in at night; seriously ill children huddled on the ground, being given medical aid.

“The majority of our agents get sick. Infectious disease is everywhere,” Mr. Cabrera said, including in the Border Patrol’s migrant processing center. “There’s always scabies in there. Usually we have chickenpox. We have tuberculosis in there. You name it, it’s probably been through that building. So it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for our agents. It’s dangerous for the detainees that don’t have anything.”

But the president has not chosen to prioritize a surge of new resources to the border, which could help ease the overcrowding and suffering that have gripped the migrants and the border communities where they arrive. Instead, Mr. Trump has insisted on simply trying to stop people from getting into the country in the first place — a policy of deterrence that not only has failed but has made the problem worse.

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Seeking asylum, with children

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Only about 20 percent of asylum seekers ultimately win the right to live and work in the United States by proving that they would face persecution in their home countries. Just wanting a better job doesn’t qualify. {snip}

Some have won asylum, for example, by proving that their membership in a religious minority singles them out for harassment or threats. In the past, women suffering domestic abuse have qualified, as have some victims targeted by gangs. Generalized fear of violence does not qualify. Neither does poverty.

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Out of nearly 100,000 credible fear interviews during the year that ended in September of 2018, an asylum officer confirmed a credible fear 74,677 times — a nearly 75 percent approval rate. A senior Trump administration official vowed on Tuesday to dramatically reduce that rate by making the standards tougher.

But it is what happens after the credible fear interview that is at the heart of America’s bitter immigration debate.

In 2017, 11,292 immigrants who had been released on bond or on their own recognizance were ordered deported because they failed to show up for their immigration proceedings, a 26 percent increase over the previous year, according to Justice Department data.

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Mr. Trump often says he plans to build a wall on the border with Mexico to halt illegal immigration. But when the standoff over funding for the wall led to a 35-day government shutdown in December and January, it actually made things worse. Many immigration judges were furloughed, and tens of thousands of deportation and asylum cases were delayed, in some cases for years.

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But blaming other countries and painting those coming across the border from Mexico as a national security threat has never failed to animate Mr. Trump’s core supporters — the ones who helped deliver him the White House in 2016.

“It’s an invasion,” Mr. Trump declared in February, after Congress denied him money to build a wall. “We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.”

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