Behind the Scenes of My Trip to the US/Mexico Border

Every now and again, I like to write behind-the-scenes accounts of my work as a U.S. Senator. The hope is that by peeling back the public relations veneer, and personally describing what really it’s like to do this job, you can get a better idea of how events pull and tug at the public policy choices of elected officials like me.

So, a few weeks ago I was appointed the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee that oversees the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and so last Friday, I went to the U.S.-Mexico border with a small, high-level delegation to see for myself the increase in child migrants at our border. What follows is a personal narrative of some of what I saw. As usual, it’s long, but I think it’s worth ten minutes of your time. Here it is.

“We learned lessons from 2019,” the border agent told us, as she led us into the odd collection of container-like buildings, connected by a series of outdoor platforms raised a few feet off the sunburnt southwest Texas ground. Inside each building the design was similar. On either side of a wide, bright blue painted hallway were giant rooms, each maybe a quarter the size of a football field. Glass, not concrete or chain fence, separated the walls from the hallway, giving the rooms the feel of a fishbowl. The only structures I remember seeing inside the brightly lit, clean rooms were a series of metal benches affixed to the concrete floor.

“Let’s go into this one,” said the agent, as she unlocked the door to one room. Along with the rest of our bipartisan Senate delegation — Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Gary Peters of Michigan, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — I entered. I took a deep breath, uncertain as to whether I could keep my composure for what lay inside.

The endless windows, of course, had left no mystery of what was inside — children, hundreds of them. In this room, all girls, mostly young teenagers, and while a few were on their feet, most of the kids were laying down on the thin mattress assigned to each, wrapped in foil-like solar blankets.

A kind, compassionate Border Patrol doctor I met earlier in our visit walked to one corner of the room and I followed him. There we found a petite 13-year-old girl (who honestly looked no older than 8), sitting on her mattress, surrounded by a handful of snacks and juice boxes, sobbing uncontrollably. The girl, who I will call “Ana,” stood up as we approached and the doctor leaned in to ask what was wrong.

My Spanish is elementary, but I could barely make out her story. Ana had fled from Guatemala (maybe months ago?) with her grandmother. Both her parents were in the U.S. and she was making the journey to join them. Last year, under the Trump administration, both she and her grandmother would have been turned away immediately, and likely sent into the hands of dangerous human traffickers at the border. This policy of “immediate removal” had been in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. But most of these families used all the money they had to pay a smuggler to get their child to the United States. Throwing these little children back into Mexico — their smuggler long gone, not a cent to their name, and their home hundreds of miles away — was a fate worse than death for many of these children.

President Biden, to his credit, could not stomach attaching America’s good name to this policy when it came to children. When he became president, he decided to allow “unaccompanied children” (meaning children arriving at the border without their parents) to stay in the country while they pursued a claim of asylum (asylum allows migrants to stay in the U.S. if their safety is in jeopardy if they return to their home). And so that is why, all of a sudden, rooms like this one are overflowing with young children.

Ana was scared, understandably. She wanted to know when she would get to see her parents, and how that would happen. The doctor told her that it was the job of everyone in this building to keep her safe, and get her to her parents. I asked him to tell her that I was there to make sure of the same thing. But nothing we said comforted her. Her tears continued. Our delegation was being ushered out of the room, so the doctor summoned one of the child care workers in the room (another post-2019 reform) to come and comfort her.

I walked away, my eyes welling up with tears, as a half dozen different thoughts raced through my brain. First, I thought of my children, and how I would not want them to spend five minutes in a facility like this, nevermind five days (the average stay of children currently housed in these buildings). These are not the “cages” from 2019 — reforms forced on the Trump administration by court cases, congressional oversight, and public pressure have improved conditions for kids at the border. These children were in air-conditioned rooms, with child care workers and medical staff close at hand. And these children will eventually be sent to more humane group homes and eventually to live with foster parents or relatives in the U.S. Better times await these youngsters. But these children are still teenagers in detention — there is just no way around that no matter how much the conditions improve.

Second, I thought of how desperate Ana’s family must have been, to leave her behind in Guatemala with her grandmother as they tested the waters in America first, and then to ask her to undertake the long, dangerous trek to Mexico’s northern boundary. Ana’s family likely knew that she would end up in a facility like this, but for them, the trauma of this experience was judged infinitely less than the trauma of remaining in Guatemala, currently one of the most violent, murderous places on the earth, where children are routinely forced into drug cartel servitude. To the extent there is an immigration “crisis” today, the actual crisis is in Mexico and Central America, where epidemic levels of violence and economies destroyed by recent natural disasters have caused such havoc that thousands of families feel no choice other than to send their children on the long journey to America. The surge of these children at our southern border is, actually, a symptom of the crisis, not the proximate crisis itself.

And third, I thought of how we must do better for Ana. This isn’t 2019. These kids aren’t being ripped away from their parents just for sport. They aren’t in cages. Joe Biden believes, rightly, that his beloved country can both uphold the rule of law and treat migrants, especially children, with compassion. What is happening now is much better than what Trump was doing to these kids.

But sprawling, fishbowl rooms aren’t a whole lot better than cages, and the reason that I decided to become Chairman of the Appropriations Committee panel that funds and oversees the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is because I know that I can help give these kids better service while they are in the care of the U.S. government. I went to the border with the new Secretary of DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas, and on the four-hour plane ride to El Paso, we talked endlessly about how President Trump had dismantled the asylum process, and how long it would take for Mayorkas to build it back up again. We talked about how conditions had improved since 2019 for children at the border, but how much work we needed to do together to make things better. As a former prosecutor, Mayorkas believes in the rule of law — he doesn’t want a lawless border. But he knows these kids will be left for dead if not for a chance to stay in a generous America. And I left the day convinced he is the right person for this difficult job.

As I fought back tears leaving the room, I asked the doctor what we could do better. “We only have these kids for a few days,” he explained. “But these few days of detention can cause a lifetime of trauma and flashbacks if we don’t get it right,” he told me. He told me that his specialty was childhood trauma, and his mission at DHS was to better serve these kids. As he asked me to get more funding for social workers and therapists, I began to regain my composure as I realized that this was the kind of leader being elevated to a position of influence by the Biden administration.

I also reflected on why America spends so much on containing the back end, instead of the front end, of the crisis. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where the bulk of the fleeing migrants come from, are not huge countries. Economic development and security funding can help stabilize these nations, and are likely a much better investment of U.S. taxpayer funding than more border agents and detention centers. Luckily, as a member of the two most relevant committees to this debate — the Appropriations Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee — I’m in a position to do something to reform this backward spending balance.

Senator Capito, Senator Peters, Secretary Mayorkas and Senator Murphy are briefed during a trip to the US/Mexico Border.

On the plane ride home, Secretary Mayorkas, and Senators Portman, Peters, Capito and I sat discussing the path forward. Right now, most Republicans simply view the increasing number of children at our border as a political tool to use to drive down President Biden’s high approval ratings. Portman and Capito, though, are serious legislators, and we talked about what we might do together to address both the short-term and long-term challenges in our immigration laws. These congressional delegation trips — whether they are international or domestic — are often an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to step away from the frenetic pace of Washington and work on discovering common ground.

I knew the job would be tough when I was appointed Chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. I knew I had a lot to learn. But my guess was that if I approached the challenge with compassion and pragmatism I could do more than just yell and scream — as many in Congress do — about immigration policy.

And so I’m thankful I met Ana, even if it was for just a few minutes. I bet one hundred seventy years earlier, when my Irish ancestors made the dangerous trans-Atlantic voyage to America (at a time, by the way, when, contrary to today, America really did have “open” borders, at least for the droves immigrants coming in from Europe), there were dozens of Anas aboard that ship — teary and petrified about their new life in this strange new country. But like Ana, they came for a reason. And that reason was the ideal of America — a nation forged by a great, revolutionary, never-before-attempted idea: that people from all over the world, often fleeing desperation, could come together and blend their differences into a wonderful new amalgam of varying cultures and languages and traditions.

Ana needs America. But I’d argue America needs Ana more. Because without her, and the thousands of other children arriving at our border hungry for a better life, we will risk abandoning the original idea of our great, one-of-a-kind nation. Opening our arms to the huddled masses is not just our tradition; it is our definition. And I arrived back at Joint Base Andrews late Friday night more convinced of that fact than ever before and more grateful than before for the opportunity Connecticut has given me to serve.

U.S. Senator, Connecticut