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J.D. Long-GarcíaSeptember 15, 2022
Migrants wait to be processed by Border Patrol after crossing into the United States near Yuma, Ariz., on Aug. 23. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)Migrants wait to be processed by Border Patrol after crossing into the United States near Yuma, Ariz., on Aug. 23. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A majority of Americans—52 percent—now believe the nation is experiencing an “invasion” on the southern border, and 49 percent say that migrants are responsible for an uptick in U.S. drug overdoses because they are transporting fentanyl and other drugs. Those are among the findings of an NPR/Ipsos poll released in August that suggests support for immigrants is diminishing.

These shifting perceptions—often based on political rhetoric and a misunderstanding of the facts on the ground—may help explain why there has been little, if any, movement on immigration reform in Congress.

The American Dream and Promise Act, for example, passed by the House last year, would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers—adults who as children were brought into the country without documentation—and other individuals who now have temporary legal status. Despite broad bipartisan support, the measure is not expected to be brought before the Senate before the midterm elections.

Shifting public perceptions on immigration—often based on political rhetoric and a misunderstanding of the facts on the ground—helps explain why there has been little movement on immigration reform in Congress.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act likewise passed the House, but it is not expected to be approved by the Senate despite bipartisan support. Supporters argue the measure, which creates new opportunities for legal migration, would alleviate shortages of agricultural workers and lower the cost of food.

While the impasse on immigration reform continues in Washington, efforts to reduce opportunities for asylum claims are pushing some migrants into life-and-death decisions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Stuck on the border

At least two Trump administration policies have prevented asylum seekers from pleading their cases in the United States: the Migration Protection Protocols and Title 42.

The Migration Protection Protocols, commonly known as the Remain in Mexico policy, required asylum seekers at the border to be returned to Mexico to await their day in court. The Biden administration attempted to end M.P.P. repeatedly, but those efforts have been blocked in court. This summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could end the program, and M.P.P. was finally shut down in August.

Immigration advocates considered the court ruling a victory, if one limited in scope. Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, said her organization has helped around a dozen migrants from Nicaragua enter the United States since M.P.P. ended.

In June, 53 migrants died in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Tex., a tragedy demonstrating the “index of desperation” that governs the risk-taking among migrant people.

But two single mothers who fled persecution in El Salvador were disappointed to learn that the program’s official end would not allow them to move on from the border camp in Nogales, Mexico, where they have been living since January. Ms. Williams had to explain that the end of M.P.P. did not affect the status of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico.

For Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, the end of M.P.P. called to mind those who were turned away because of the program in the past. Many gave up and returned to precarious conditions in their home countries. Others decided to make dangerous crossings outside the asylum process. “And we know that some people did lose their lives,” he said.

In June, 53 migrants died in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Tex., a tragedy Mr. Corbett sees as demonstrating the “index of desperation” that governs the risk-taking among migrant people. In August, a 5-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy drowned days apart in the Rio Grande. In fact, a record 609 migrants have died crossing the border through July this year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports nearly two million encounters with unauthorized migrants this year. While the crossing numbers have unquestionably been on the rise, Mr. Corbett noted that individual migrants often make multiple attempts to enter but are repeatedly turned back by Border Patrol agents.

“I understand that the border becomes politicized, but people [in the United States] need to understand that [migrant] people are coming in need,” Mr. Corbett said. “It’s not something we don’t have the capacity to respond to. It’s a moral call to solidarity. And as a country, we’ll be better off if we accept people with compassion and dignity.”

“The border becomes politicized, but people in the United States need to understand that migrants are coming in need. It’s not something we don’t have the capacity to respond to. It’s a moral call to solidarity.”

Under Mr. Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked Title 42, a health ordinance used to summarily expel immigrants since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. While M.P.P. affected more than 70,000 people, Title 42 has led to the expulsion of two million people since it began to be invoked in March 2020.

“Title 42, in many ways, is a lot worse” than M.P.P., Mr. Corbett said. “But the intention of both programs was to essentially make life as painful as possible for people who are approaching the border seeking protection. Both administrations are guilty of using those programs in tandem to expel as many people as they could.”

End-times for Title 42?

For the first 15 months of his administration, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. left Title 42 in place. When he did attempt to end the program in April, he was blocked in court.

The Biden administration has not done enough to end Title 42, according to Luis Guerra, a legal advocate with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “We’re now stuck in this limbo through the legal process that could have been avoided if they would have moved quicker and more decisively,” he said.

Mr. Guerra, who regularly works in Tijuana, just south of San Diego, said there are two ways that migrants and asylum seekers attempt to enter the United States. The first is through a port of entry.

“Right now they would just flat out be denied entry,” he said. He has seen immigration officials at the international line walking among cars seeking to identify presumptive asylum seekers and using Title 42 to turn them back before they can reach U.S. soil, where they can make a legal claim.

When migrants are denied legal routes, many make the second choice, a dangerous entry into the United States across desert terrain or border waterways. Border Patrol agents who intercept them often use Title 42 to return them quickly to Mexico, Mr. Guerra said.

When migrants are denied legal routes, many make the second choice, a dangerous entry into the United States across desert terrain or border waterways.

The biggest challenge for organizations on the ground “is that there is no rhyme or reason many times on who makes it through and who doesn’t,” he said, an inconsistency that has encouraged some migrants to take greater risks.

Prospects are grim for those returned to Mexico.

“Now they’re living on the streets, and guess who’s ready to pick them up? Organized crime,” Mr. Guerra said. “We see a lot of cases of kidnapping for ransom because a majority of the folks have ties in the U.S., and organized crime takes advantage of that relationship.”

Mr. Guerra argued that the asylum process effectively “does not exist” at ports of entry along the southern border. “Asylum only exists for people of means who can arrive through an airport. Title 42 would have to go away for things to return to the status quo, as they were before the pandemic.”

A number of public health experts, including within the Biden administration, said the implementation of Title 42 was not based on strong scientific evidence that it would succeed in hindering the spread of Covid-19, according to David Spicer, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We’ve actually seen that Title 42 caused further spread of Covid-19,” he said. “You have migrants being expelled back to Mexico on buses and planes. And they’re not being offered vaccinations from our country’s surplus.”

The political path ahead

Ending Title 42 is important for building a more compassionate and realistic border policy, but it is only the first step, according to Ms. Williams. “We need to look at this in a more long-term way and in a more complex way,” she said.

“There’s just been a lot of political dysfunction and bad faith about the immigration debate, period.” Migrants have been transformed into “political instruments.”

Advocates at the border are seeing a greater diversity of nationalities among migrant people at the border, Ms. Williams said, reflecting trends in global displacement. She noted, for example, Muslim Indians arriving at the border who had been persecuted by the Hindu Nationalist Party. There are also migrants from Venezuela, often enduring a second displacement after seeking safety from that nation’s political turmoil in Colombia.

The Kino Border Initiative serves meals to 200 to 300 people a day, she said, and the shelter has been at capacity each day over the last month.

The effort is stretching staff capacity, but “we’re going to be O.K.,” she said, adding that when they run out of the prepared meal, the cooks just make quesadillas. “No one is going to go away hungry.” She described it as a “daily miracle of the loaves and the fishes.”

Kino’s adaptability to changing border conditions is a stark contrast to the lack of progress at the congressional level. According to Don Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, it has been 33 years since Congress passed a major immigration reform legislation—the Immigration Act of 1990—and the last general legalization legislation passed in 1986.

“There’s just been a lot of political dysfunction and bad faith about the immigration debate, period,” Mr. Kerwin said. Migrants have been transformed into “political instruments.”

With some small exceptions, immigration policy does not seem to be a priority to congressional leaders or to voters, according to Mr. Kerwin.

“People don’t vote primarily on immigration,” said J. Kevin Appleby, a longtime immigration advocate. “People don’t perceive or perhaps don’t immediately feel the impact of immigration on them like they do inflation, or the absence of health care, or housing costs.”

If anything, he said, congressional leaders who are pro-immigrant tend to get hurt politically because of that stance. Candidates who focus on border security often do better in elections, Mr. Appleby said.

Mr. Guerra agreed. Those who create policies that are “humane and dignified start worrying about being classified as ‘open borders’ or too liberal,” he said.

The NPR/Ipsos survey suggests anti-immigrant rhetoric is working. Fewer Americans today—56 percent—said immigrants reflect an important aspect of national identity than in 2018, when 75 percent believed that. Slightly more—46 percent, up from 42 percent in 2018—now support building a wall along the southern border. Ms. Williams found the poll “striking, almost shocking,” suggesting that many of the positions supported by the people surveyed were “just factually incorrect.”

She supports stronger efforts to evangelize those Americans through authentic encounters. “I don’t think that we often allow enough space for transformation in our society,” she said. “We can wax poetic about politicization, but what are we really doing to give people the opportunity to meet Christ and be transformed by Christ?”

The Kino Border Initiative wants to be a place of that kind of encounter, she said. “No matter what someone’s political beliefs are, we have the capacity to be good people,” Ms. Williams said. “We have the capacity to be good neighbors. And we can really work miracles that way.”

Over the long term, walls and border enforcement are not going to solve the problem, Mr. Corbett said. “We need to imagine a system that is completely different. We need to put policies in place that are welcoming, that are humane and that break through this logjam of politics.

“In the meantime,” he said, “we have to fight for the dignity of the undocumented and the restoration of asylum.”

Find out more about changing public attitudes about immigration.

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