We can fix immigration system If we can land a probe on Mars, we can solve the border stalemate
Launched on May 5, the NASA InSight probe traveled more than 300 million miles and touched down safely on Mars — a truly remarkable achievement. Americans figured out how to travel 300 million miles and land a probe on another planet within seven months, but Congress has not been able to land our immigration policy in 20 years.
On Nov. 29, I spoke on the Senate floor for the 10th time in three years to discuss immigration. Early in 2018, the Senate negotiated for weeks to find common ground on immigration policy in the U.S. Unfortunately, those agreements failed. Since then, InSight traveled 300 million miles, but the Senate is still stuck. Our national debate at best has ignored what is really happening at our border, and at worst we have encouraged human smuggling of children.
Two months ago, several thousand people in a so-called caravan left Honduras and illegally crossed into Guatemala, where hundreds of them were deported by the Guatemalan government, but many others traveled on. Then, the group approached the border between Guatemala and Mexico, but Mexico sent its law enforcement and military to the border to insist that the caravan could not cross the border illegally into Mexico. However, the caravan charged the bridge and overran Mexican law enforcement and military members.
Most of the group were offered asylum by Mexico or they were deported, but hundreds continued to travel through Mexico until they reached the U.S. border at San Diego. They rushed the border fence multiple times to try to cross illegally into the U.S. only a few hundred yards east of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which allows 100,000 people to legally cross every day. All the media attention has focused on a few thousand people trying to cross illegally near San Diego, rather than the 100,000 people crossing legally right over their left shoulders.
U.S. Border Patrol is trying to process safely and efficiently individuals and families along a border that is very difficult to secure in its current state. Aging fences, long technology gaps and wide open spaces keep the border porous. Just last week, one of the individuals traveling with the Honduran caravan was identified as a convicted murderer and gang member, reminding us that not everyone trying to come into our country is just coming for work. Despite challenges, our border patrol is still successful as they work hard, improve barriers and utilize as much technology as possible.
Each person who crosses our border or waits at a border crossing for entry is allowed to request asylum and get a hearing. But because of a decade-long backlog of requests, there are already more than 800,000 people waiting in line for a hearing, most of whom are waiting in the U.S. In the past year, 150 new immigration judges were hired to help, but the problem continues to grow.
In 2017, around 400,000 people were
arrested illegally crossing our southern border. That may seem like an incredibly large number, but to put that into perspective: 500,000 people legally cross our southern border every day. Millions of people come to the U.S. legally each year. It can be long and difficult, but it is possible.
We need to make our entry process more efficient and we need to better secure our border to deter people who do not choose to cross legally. Both legal and illegal entry should have already been addressed by Congress, but the problem continues to grow.
I remain very outspoken that family units should stay together whenever possible. We're Americans. We're very passionate about families. If a family unit crosses the border illegally, as much as possible, we should keep that family together, including family detention units. However, some courts have required the rapid release of minors but allowed the detention of their parents. Since most Americans also want families to be together while they await their trial, the family is released into the U.S. with a notice to appear at a court date in the distant future.
In 2017, Congress funded new 18-foot bollard-style “open” fencing, unlike the old solid sheet metal fence. Although the results of the success of the fence have not been released yet, the border agents on the ground said previously they had 10 crossings a day through the old-style, sheet metal fence. Today, they have one illegal crossing a month. If verified, that is real, tangible success. However, a fence or wall is not the only solution for border security. We have expanded our use of technology (cameras, sensors, etc.) to fortify our border security and empower Border Patrol agents to do their jobs well. We also need to stop encouraging people to bring a child with them when they cross illegally; it is terrible for the child and for our justice system.
Sadly, one unintended consequence is that now we have more children coming to our border and an increasing number of young adults claiming to be 17 years old. Over the past several years, scores of young men from Southeast Asia and other regions have traveled to South and Central America to connect with smugglers who move them to the U.S. for work. Our Customs and Border Patrol agents report that increasingly these young men claim to be 17 to gain access to the U.S. as “unaccompanied minors.”
A recent Washington Post article, “For Central Americans, Children Open a Path to the US — And Bring a Discount,” details the terrifyingly real business of child smuggling from Central America to our southern border. The article cites that it will cost migrants $10,000 if they travel to the U.S. individually as adults, but if they bring a child with them, the adult and child can come for $4,500. Essentially, it's half price if you bring a kid because it's easier to get into the U.S. if you bring a child with you, any child.
Families are so desperate in parts of Central America to access American jobs that adult males offer to take a neighbor's child with them. They tell the child's parent that they will get a discount, will send cash back to the family, and try to enroll the child in an American school or find somebody to take care of him or her.
As a result, our southern border has seen a dramatic increase in the number of adult males arriving with a child they're not related to because they get a discount from their human smugglers and an expedited process to cross our border to request asylum even though they actually don't qualify for asylum.
Our broken immigration system now encourages the human trafficking of children from Central America. The Washington Post story highlighted that the process even has a nickname in Central America: adoptions.
Desperation has caused these families to adopt out their children, send them on the dangerous road to our border with a human smuggler and hope for the best for their child. This has to stop. We cannot continue to encourage human trafficking by incentivizing the smuggling of children.
As we continue to consider funding and solutions for specific border security and immigration reform, we can honor people who immigrate the right way through our legal process and discourage trafficking. We should fix broken areas of the system that encourage adults to bring children illegally across the border because they get a discount or faster access. We can find common ground to address problems with legal work visas. We can all look at the facts and stop pretending that everything is fine.
We truly can solve immigration, but we cannot continue to ignore the problem and think it will magically improve. This requires honest debate, not just political slogans and division. But, if the Mars InSight probe can travel 300 million miles and land on Mars, Congress should absolutely be able to sit down and resolve immigration issues effectively.
James Lankford is the junior U.S. senator from Oklahoma. This column is based on a speech he gave on the floor of the Senate last week.
A woman holding a baby peers through the U.S. border fence as she tries to reach a point where migrants have been crossing Wednesday in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. Discouraged by the long wait to apply for asylum through official ports of entry, many Central American migrants from recent caravans are choosing to cross the U.S. border wall and hand themselves in to border patrol agents.