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J.D. Long GarcíaFebruary 08, 2024
Asylum-seeking migrants wait to be processed in a makeshift, mountainous campsite after crossing the border with Mexico, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Over the last few months, congressional Republicans had been withholding support for President Biden’s request for emergency aid to Israel and Ukraine, saying it would have to be accompanied by more border security measures and asylum restrictions in the United States. For a time, the strategy seemed to work, with Democrats, including Mr. Biden, agreeing to many Republican demands.

Yet in the end, all but four Senate Republicans and six Democrats voted to block the bipartisan bill’s passage yesterday. The actions of members from both parties concerned immigration advocates.

“The presumption that the border can be closed as easily as turning a key on a lock is based on a completely mistaken understanding of what a border is,” Bishop Mark Seitz, the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, told America. Bishop Seitz lamented what appeared to be the Biden administration’s willingness to “sacrifice” its objections to “certain issues that they’ve spoken against,” including further militarizing the border.

Bishops Seitz, who leads the Diocese of El Paso, Tex., on the U.S.-Mexico border, also expressed concern over the proposal to tighten conditions for granting asylum.

“Many people who are arriving at the border have strong asylum claims. They’ve been fleeing for their lives, and the only place they can find refuge is the United States,” he said, noting that in some jurisdictions, 95 percent of asylum claims are denied.

“Many people who are arriving at the border have strong asylum claims. They’ve been fleeing for their lives, and the only place they can find refuge is the United States.”

“We don’t think making it tougher is going to change any of this reality that we have seen,” Bishop Seitz said. “But it will end up sending people back to situations where they may well be targeted either by governments or by criminal organizations that targeted them in the first place. We’re not just talking about adults. We’re talking about children as well.”

Yet the bill did have positive aspects, he said, including increasing the number of individuals who would receive visas, including work visas. Bishop Seitz also noted the much-needed addition of judges to immigration courts, a measure the church has long supported.

“I think we can all agree that we should expedite processes,” he said of asylum claims. “They shouldn’t take many, many years.”

Joanna Williams, the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Ariz., agreed. The Senate bill also proposed giving U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services the power to grant full approval to asylum seekers, she said.

“Those are the kinds of things that can lessen the workload in the system and actually improve access to asylum and protection,” Ms. Williams told America. “We’ve had a backlog in the immigration system for so long, and every year it gets worse. A lot of what’s needed is just a major investment in building up the capacity to process cases.”

While acknowledging that the immigration system needs a comprehensive overhaul, she believes trying to do it all at once could hold back the process of reform.

“We at Kino are very incremental folks. [We think,] ‘What are a couple of changes that we can make that will make things slightly better?’” she said. “Over time, we’ll accumulate those changes into a better system.”

Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, often captures the nation’s attention with his controversial border enforcement tactics, including razor wire barriers. Mr. Abbott, who signed a law that would make it a state crime to cross the border illegally in December, is also known for busing migrants to cities run by Democratic mayors.

But Arizona’s Tucson sector is actually the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings, according to The Associated Press. For the time being, however, the border is just not as politicized in Arizona, Ms. Williams said.

“The day-to-day story is really about the extraordinary work done by community groups and the Catholic Church, especially Catholic Community Services [of Southern Arizona],” she said, noting the agency’s work in receiving migrants. “There’s very much an attitude here in Arizona that we’ll work with what’s in front of us. We’ll find a humane response in the moment, while still advocating for more government responsibility on both sides of the border.”

For J. Kevin Appleby, a senior fellow at the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the former director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the failure of this most recent immigration bill brought little comfort.

“The question moving forward is whether this proposal becomes a baseline for future bills,” he told America. “Democrats have gone this far in giving concessions to the Republicans. Is it irreversible? Will the Republicans insist on what Democrats have agreed to in this process as a minimum moving forward?”

While politics are always in flux, Mr. Appleby said, Democrats went farther than ever “in terms of agreeing with Republicans on restrictive measures. That in and of itself can be harmful. Because it sets a bad precedent.”

Donald J. Trump, the former president who is also the Republicans’ leading candidate for the office this year, denounced the immigration bill as being too weak. Many believe Mr. Trump’s influence led to its failure.

Donald J. Trump, the former president who is also the Republicans’ leading candidate for the office this year, denounced the immigration bill as being too weak.

“I’d never thought I’d thank Donald Trump on any immigration-related matter,” Mr. Appleby quipped. “But he’s actually saved immigrants from facing some pretty harsh policies. At least for the time being.”

But something must be done to reform the system, he said. A comprehensive approach would address a range of issues, Mr. Appleby said, including the status of undocumented young people who have grown up in this country and the future for millions of undocumented workers.

“We rely on undocumented immigrants to work in different industries, but we’re unwilling to give them the protections that the rest of us enjoy. Their labor helps maintain the supply of goods, keeps prices down,” he said. “We scapegoat them for all our social ills, but we ignore the fact that they provide sweat equity to our economy to help keep it growing. That’s just wrong. It’s exploitative. It uses people. And no one wants to talk about that and how it hurts the soul of our nation.”

Keeping families together must be a priority, Mr. Appleby said. But so is border security.

“The situation on the border is unsustainable. It needs to be addressed. The question is what’s the most effective method of addressing it,” he said. “And I think part of the problem is that we haven’t reformed this system in 30 years. The legal immigration system is outdated. The whole system needs to be revamped and modernized and there just isn’t the political will to do that, at least at the moment.”

Legal avenues for workers, including entry and exit strategies so immigrants do not overstay their visas, should be explored, he said. The Biden administration tried such a strategy with immigrants from Venezuela, and it reduced the number of Venezuelans at the border, he said, demonstrating the strategy can work.

“Every part affects another. You can’t just look at it in a silo,” Mr. Appleby said. “Adopting deterrence policies is not going to solve the problem in the long term because the forces that drive people are ultimately stronger than any deterrence regime. When you have a gun in your face, you’re going to run first and ask questions later.”

Bishop Seitz said the church has been lobbying for a comprehensive approach for years. Such a system would “allow flexibility according to the economic situation in other countries and our own.”

“When it comes to writing legislation, that’s not what the church does,” he said. “What we try to lay out are principles that should underlie legislation. We ask legislators to propose legislation that respects basic principles of human rights and dignity.”

A healthy immigration policy, he said, would “focus on the situation in sending countries.” Bishop Seitz noted Mexico and Central American countries in particular. “We would call people to look at why people are coming, and especially our responsibility in the United States. Where do we have some culpability in this?”

“The border is a place that shows the symptoms of a broken immigration situation, but it is not the place where you will be able to resolve the circumstances that lead to a disorderly mass immigration situation,” Bishop Seitz said.

But for decades, addressing the complex, outdated immigration system is something that Congress has been unwilling to do.

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