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J.D. Long GarcíaDecember 20, 2023
Asylum-seekers walk to a U.S. Border Patrol van after crossing the nearby border with Mexico on Sept. 26, 2023, near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)Asylum-seekers walk to a U.S. Border Patrol van after crossing the nearby border with Mexico on Sept. 26, 2023, near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy, File)

Shortly after college, I wrote a series of stories covering a controversial immigration ballot measure in Arizona. Despite bipartisan opposition, the measure passed. I wanted to get reactions from those directly affected by the new law, so one morning I drove out to Guadalupe, a small town outside of Phoenix with Native American and Mexican roots.

I parked my car at a Carl’s Jr. and walked down Avenida del Yaqui, the town’s major thoroughfare where day laborers usually gathered to wait for jobs. I approached one of the men who was off on his own. He wore workman’s boots and jeans, as well as a jacket to shield himself from the January winds. He didn’t look at me.

Disculpe,” I said, “Excuse me.”

In Spanish, I explained that I was working on a story about the upcoming immigration measure and asked if I could speak to him about it.

“No,” he said.

“Oh, OK,” I said, kind of on my heels. I explained that I just needed a minute, and I thought it would be important to hear from a person from the community.

“You people just come out here and do your interviews and leave,” he said in Spanish. “You don’t care about us. We’re just another story to you.”

Immigrants are human beings, and they must not be exploited. Not by journalists, and not by politicians.

It seemed like he’d been interviewed before, by other journalists who had also been following the story for the last several months. He didn’t appreciate it, he told me. He didn’t go to my place of work to bother me.

I told him I was sorry.

“No,” he said. “I won’t answer your questions.”

My confidence shaken a bit, I crossed the street and found a few workers sitting near a cluster of California Fan Palm trees. They spoke with me and I quoted them in the story, but I never forgot the first man I approached. His message to a young journalist still rings loud and clear: Immigrants are human beings, and they must not be exploited. Not by journalists, and not by politicians.

But journalists and politicians certainly do exploit them. Perhaps the clearest example of late is the media frenzy that surrounded the busing of immigrants from border states run by Republican governors to major cities run by Democrats. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, known for his controversial border enforcement tactics, recently announced on social media that he would continue busing migrants to “sanctuary cities.” This week, Mr. Abbott signed a number of immigration measures into law, including one that would make it a state crime to cross the border illegally—a law that is certain to be challenged in court on the grounds that immigration law is a federal responsiblity.

At the national level, Republican leaders in Congress continue to exploit the issue to score points with their base. Republicans have continued to withhold support for President Biden’s request for emergency funding in Ukraine until the administration funds better border security and enacts asylum restrictions. The Biden administration has reportedly signaled its openness to the Republicans’ asylum restrictions, angering immigration advocates.

In their most recent proposal, Senate Republicans went so far as to describe asylum as the “top” loophole that “pulls” asylum seekers to the United States. This is absurd. It should be obvious, but I will spell it out: U.S. policy at the border does not create the need for asylum. The need for asylum begins in the home countries of those who arrive at our border.

U.S. policy at the border does not create the need for asylum. The need for asylum begins in the home countries of those who arrive at our border.

For years, journalists have documented violence in Latin America. Catholic humanitarian groups like Jesuit Refugee Service, the Hope Border Institute, the Kino Border Initiative and the Scalabrini fathers have accompanied migrants for decades and can attest to the veracity of the reports. While they guard a quiet hope, the migrants who journey north lead lives of great suffering. I have interviewed many migrants on the border who were fleeing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

These migrants are not familiar with the nuances and subtleties of U.S. asylum policy. They are not looking for loopholes but for a place to simply exist.

Years ago, some migrants explained to me how they had received flyers from smugglers back home advertising transport to the United States. Human trafficking is, according to estimates, a $150 billion-per-year enterprise. Instead of focusing on organized crime, too many journalists and too many legislators fail to treat migrants as human beings and end up villainizing them.

But the migrants are the victims. They are held for ransom, women are raped, and children are sold into sex slavery. Too little is done to hold accountable those truly responsible for the unlivable circumstances and those who exploit migrants on their journey.

The notion that the flow of migrants will be stemmed by closing asylum “loopholes” is grotesque. After so many years of tolerating this broken system, it’s hard to believe anyone in Congress actually sees migrants as human beings. Our legislators’ actions—or lack thereof—speak volumes. Leaders of one party prey on voters’ xenophobic tendencies while the other refuses to act, judging pro-immigrant measures too great a political risk.

To be sure, this is not a recent problem. In his 2013 autobiography, former Arizona state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez writes about his father, who, despite being an American citizen, was deported in 1932. Mr. Gutierrez, a Democrat and longtime immigrant advocate, openly criticized President Obama’s immigration policies, including the historic number of deportations carried out during his administration.

Leaders of one party prey on voters’ xenophobic tendencies while the other refuses to act, judging pro-immigrant measures too great a political risk.

A number of advocates have shared with me their frustration with both parties in terms of immigration reform. They feel powerless against the “immigration industrial complex,” a phrase that refers to the private and public entities—like private detention centers and immigration law enforcement—that benefit from the ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Like abortion, immigration has become a convenient problem for political punditry. Fanning partisan fervor displaces any discussion of lasting solutions and realistic compromises.

Instead, the focus remains squarely on the physical border, and not on the factors pushing migrants north. In the longer term, U.S. foreign policy could empower Latin American countries to address poverty, corruption and violence, which may not only reduce the flow of immigrants, but more importantly allow them to find a dignified life in their native lands. In 2021, President Biden vowed to invest $4 billion in Central America, and those plans are now being implemented. Yet beyond financial support, U.S. leaders must hold these countries accountable for how the funds are used.

Such efforts will take years to bear fruit, and while perhaps fewer in number, Latin Americans will continue to migrate to the United States. In the short term, opening more legal paths to migrants and asylum seekers can alleviate the crisis at the border. America has always been, and will continue to be, a nation of immigrants. Our government leaders are not called to put an end to migration, but to effectively regulate migration to accommodate new arrivals. After all, as the Catholic Church has long taught, human beings have a right to migrate.

“Lawmakers are attempting to hold foreign aid hostage in exchange for lasting damage to deeply enshrined humanitarian protections. These extreme proposals are not serious solutions and no policymaker should accept them,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, said in a recent statement about the Senate Republicans’ proposal. “Immigrants are not political pawns and cannot be held as ransom in any negotiation whatsoever.”

Mr. Corbett is right. Leaders in Washington cannot continue to delay overhauling a collapsed immigration system that has tormented countless families on the border and beyond. The latest half measures are but another example of how our political rhetoric undercuts the dignity of the human beings who arrive at our southern border. Unless our political leaders recognize the common humanity we share with migrants and asylum seekers, the immigration crisis will continue.

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