My Trip to the Southwest Border & Why We Need Bipartisan Immigration Reform
Two weeks ago, I spent two days in Texas and Arizona, joining a group of Republican and Democratic Senators to review conditions at our nation’s southern border. I want to share with you a behind-the-scenes account of this brief trip, especially because the discussions our group had during the trip could form the foundation of an important bipartisan breakthrough on the fraught issue of immigration policy.
First, a note on why I made this trip. On the Appropriations Committee, which writes the nation’s annual spending bills, I am the Chairman of the subcommittee that devises the budget for the entire Department of Homeland Security. This includes all the facets of our nation’s border security and immigration system. So it’s just good form to see firsthand the programs and personnel our budget funds. But, I chose to go on this particular trip because I am sick and tired of the topic of immigration being seen as a crude political cudgel — a perpetually unsolvable problem that makes our economy and our democracy weaker. Our immigration laws are embarrassingly outdated; the last major update was written when I was in middle school. It’s way past time for Members of Congress to stop worrying about the political fallout on the right and left from an immigration compromise and catch up our laws to reality.
Maybe a few years ago, I wouldn’t be a likely Senator to help broker this compromise. But over the last year, I have found myself at the center of some of the most significant bipartisan breakthroughs in the Senate — the bipartisan gun safety bill and the Electoral Count Reform Act — and many of the same Senators with whom I worked on those bills are eager to be at the table on immigration reform. So on Monday morning, I set off for El Paso, Texas to rendezvous with two other Democratic Senators — Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Chris Coons of Delaware — one Independent Senator — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — and four Republican Senators — John Cornyn of Texas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Jerry Moran of Kansas — for two days of meetings and tours. Not coincidentally, all four members who wrote the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act were part of this delegation. Sinema, Cornyn, Tillis, and l labored nonstop for a month to produce the most significant gun safety bill in three decades. We enjoyed working together and were eager to find a new and equally challenging collaboration.
America’s greatness is rooted in our willingness to bring people from all over the world, many fleeing persecution or economic devastation, to become part of the American experiment. Many Americans are here because they are, or an ancestor was, an immigrant. But, I think today that many people forget that at one time, for some immigrants, we had near open borders. When my Irish family members sailed here in the mid-1800s, there were no visa or refugee programs. They didn’t seek permission before setting off to America. They were fleeing starvation and poverty, just like those coming to our southern border today, and their journey was, for all intents and purposes, just as arduous. Our ability to go from a sleepy British colony to the world’s preeminent superpower in a short two centuries is a result of the genius of our founding ideals and the scourge of slavery, but also our ability to grow quickly through migration.
The vast plurality of Americans see the country’s commitment to a relatively generous policy of immigration as a core American value. Our nation’s identity as a melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religions is a building block of Americanism. Yes, our heterogeneity occasionally leads to social friction, but our young nation’s scant history or tradition commands us to find a unifying mythology, and much of that mythology comes to us through our unique commitment to multi-ethnicity.
Americans also understand the more practical benefits of strong immigration. In the short term, an economy with full employment and crippling labor shortages are a blinking red warning sign of the danger of closing our borders. We need workers. In the long term, there is simply no way to keep up with emerging powers that have five times as many people as America unless we keep growing. When China was an economic backwater, it didn’t really matter that they have five times as many people as the U.S. China’s emergence as a true economic and innovation rival means that this population imbalance suddenly matters a lot more.
Americans get this. It’s why proposals like providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals are relatively popular while proposals to “seal” the border with an ocean-to-ocean wall or ban classes of immigrants based on religion are seen as radical. Most Americans know that immigrants are not a security threat. Despite claims by the bigots and racists, they know that the rate of criminal offenses committed by both first-generation Americans and undocumented immigrants is lower, not higher, than the rate of offenses committed by natural-born Americans.
Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the value of migration and the important role immigrants play in our national story, many Americans think the current system is unsustainable. These Americans are furious about the current state of immigration policy because they simply do not believe the method and rules by which we bring migrants into America today are fair or just. They see America as a nation of compassion and opportunity but also value order and rule of law. And scenes of migrants crossing the southern border by the thousands, mothers and children being kept in holding pens, or clusters of undocumented laborers waiting for daily shadow work, give the sense of a rule-less system that creates an arbitrary network of winners and losers. As Venezuelan migrants walk across the border and willingly surrender to border patrol agents, knowing that there is likely no chance that they will ever be forced to leave the United States no matter the legitimacy of their legal immigration claim, steam rightly spouts from the ears of Americans who have played by the rules and waited for years to bring a sponsored family member to the United States through the formal visa program.
A lack of evident fairness in our immigration system also undermines American confidence in ethnic and cultural heterogeneity as a core element of American patriotism. Let’s remember that our ability to construct a peaceable nation in which citizens can simultaneously have a sense of patriotism to a multi-ethnic nation and a sense of belonging in a particular ethnic component of that nation — that I can be a proud, patriotic American while simultaneously identifying as a proud Irish-American and Polish-American, for example — is a miracle with no modern historical corollary. But any political or national identity must be based on a clear idea of who is included and who is not — even as a confident, open society will also have a fair and transparent process for someone on the outside to become a part of that community. A true rules-based immigration policy, where Americans have a clear sense of how someone can come here temporarily to work or get on a pathway to become an American citizen, helps us keep faith with the daring experiment of a continually growing multi-ethnic nation. A haphazard system, when the rules seem to change frequently and our outdated laws don’t address our current challenges, creates a sense of unease about the entire endeavor and weakens the bonds we have with each other.
Of course, herein lies our opportunity. It’s as clear as the south Texas night sky I saw two weeks ago. Americans want the United States to remain an expanding nation of immigrants. But they also want to know what the rules are, and for those rules to be as fair as possible. They know that the old rules, written a generation ago, don’t work anymore. The opportunity appears here, because by updating these rules, we reset our nation’s confidence in the original genius of generous American immigration policy, and we allow our nation’s economy to keep reaping the bounty of all the smart, hardworking people of the world who want to become Americans. Yes, the fear of the “other” and the “new” are powerful. And throughout our country’s history, demagogues have preyed upon that instinct to make people see immigrants as dangerous. But in America, that trigger to fear others has always been defeated by faith in the value of our world-changing, multi-ethnic project. And while many things have changed in our country over the last two hundred forty years, that hasn’t.
On the Monday of our CODEL, we spent the day touring immigration facilities in El Paso and meeting with local community leaders to hear about the impact the surging numbers of migrants have had on the city and the area. Leaders at these visits told us that the number of people who have crossed our southwest border in the last year is record-breaking. That’s true, but frankly, it’s hard to know the historical trajectory of crossing frequency at our border with Mexico. There was a time when there were few checkpoints and no fencing. Though it was technically illegal for Mexicans to come into America without permission, they did it all the time. Most came for work or to shop or to visit family. Most left soon after they arrived. When the checkpoints and the early fencing went up, records suggest the crossings didn’t relent. In the 2000s, there were half as many border guards as today, so we had much less ability to apprehend those that were crossing without prior permission. But even so, in 2003, one million people were apprehended — with half the staff we have in the Border Patrol today. That suggests that the numbers we saw in 2021–2.3 million apprehensions — might not be without precedent.
But back then, the migrants were mostly from two places: Mexico and the poorest countries in Central America. And the problem was simple. They were trying to cross the border without getting caught. Today, the problem is much, much more complex. First, the people crossing the border aren’t just from Mexico and Central America. In Yuma, Arizona, where we visited that Tuesday, Border Patrol agents told us that recently they have seen more Russians crossing than Mexicans. In El Paso, the first family of asylum seekers we spoke to was from Uzbekistan. The diversity of nationalities crossing the border is stunning. Cubans, Ukrainians, Colombians, Peruvians, Russians, Indians, Chinese, Haitians. Why does that matter? Because it’s relatively simple to apprehend a Mexican citizen and transport them back across the border. What happens when you apprehend a Russian citizen, when Mexico won’t accept them and you have no repatriation agreement with Moscow? These are challenges our current system struggles to tackle.
The second major change is that today, more and more migrants aren’t trying to sneak in. They are coming to ports of entry or walking across the border, and just waiting until the Border Patrol finds them. These immigrants are here to apply for asylum, based on a fear of harm if they stay in their home country; some proactively claim asylum when presenting at the border, while others claim asylum as a defense once removal proceedings have been initiated against them. America’s commitment to take in refugees and asylees is in our DNA. While asylum rates vary substantially depending on the type of claim or even hearing location, a large share of asylum applicants do not ultimately obtain asylum. The immigration court backlog means that these migrants who don’t have a valid claim still get to remain in America for years while the claim is administered, and others never show up for their hearings, instead slipping into the shadow workforce of undocumented Americans. Little of this seems fair to most Americans.
On Monday night, our delegation went out on patrol with off-duty Border Patrol agents. Around 9pm, we drove up on two Patrol agents on horseback who had apprehended two migrants. Two decades ago, they almost certainly would have been Mexican or Honduran or Guatemalan. Not anymore. These two migrants were holding Chinese passports. Our Border Patrol hosts told us that they likely had to pay as much as $30,000 to a mix of criminal gangs in China and Mexico who arranged for their passage across the border. Because of the overwhelming numbers of migrants crossing the border near El Paso and the impossibility of returning them to either China or Mexico, these two men would likely spend a day being processed (vaccines and background checks) and then be released with a promise to appear, at some point in the future, before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Because of the repressive nature of the Chinese government, we were also told they would have a good chance of receiving asylum and getting on a path to legally remain in the U.S. But it still didn’t seem fair to me and others in our delegation that this path included paying $30,000 to a criminal cartel in order to sneak into the country — and requiring U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill to apprehend them in the middle of a Tuesday night.
The next day, in Yuma, we walked along a section of the unfinished border wall. All throughout the tour, we saw how ineffective the wall was. Border guards, who generally support the wall because it at least slows down crossings, explained to us how many people cut through, dig under, or scale over, the wall. But in Yuma, at the point where the wall ends, I noticed a rope line running parallel to the fence, and I asked the border patrol to explain its purpose. They told me how each morning, hundreds of migrants would cross through the opening in the wall, and then just sit and wait for Border Patrol Agents to pick them up so they could apply for asylum. The rope line has been permanently installed by the Border Patrol to make the daily processing more orderly. We also saw local volunteers who were there to hand out water to migrants after their long journey, reaffirming that so many Americans care deeply about welcoming these newcomers and ensuring they are treated humanely.
The phenomena we saw on our tour — the geographical diversity of the new migrants and the high numbers of asylum seekers — tell us two things at once. One, life is direr than ever in a greater variety of countries than ever, outside America. And two, America remains the most sought-after destination in the world for those who want a better life. I left the border confident that Republicans and Democrats can come together to continue America’s tradition of generous immigration policies, while reforming the rules to give confidence to Americans that there is order and fairness in the design of our system.
Almost as soon as I landed back on the east coast, I received text messages from Cornyn, Tillis and Sinema, all hopeful that our trip could lead to another bipartisan breakthrough. But what would the contours of that breakthrough look like? I’ve been giving this question much thought over the last week.
I think Republicans know that any bipartisan reform proposal must include a pathway to citizenship for some large portion of the millions of people who are currently living in America without documentation. At the very least, we must allow for the Dreamers — those young people who were brought to America at a very young age — to apply for citizenship. And personally, I think it would be counterproductive for any reform proposal to not include a road to legal status for others in this country without documentation. The path to citizenship can include a high bar, but why design a comprehensive reform bill that leaves millions who are already here to live in the shadows?
Democrats must be willing to create an expedited process to decide asylum cases. It makes no sense that today this process takes years for most migrants to complete. Maybe the most complicated cases should extend past a few months, but we should incentivize applicants to apply before they arrive in the United States, and Democrats should be open to consequences if migrants could have applied ahead of time and chose to show up at the border and apply in person instead.
Democrats should also be open to additional ways to better secure our border. Fencing doesn’t work everywhere on our border, and even when we put up physical barriers it has limited utility. But there are places barriers do work, and Democrats shouldn’t reflexively oppose this investment. And does it make sense that the City of New York has twice as many police officers as the southwest border has Border Patrol Agents? In order to make any immigration reform truly bipartisan, Democrats need to come to terms with the political imperative on the right for more investment to secure the border.
Finally, both parties should see the need to update the legal immigration system. Put simply, we need more people in the United States, not less. And so we should increase the number of work and family visas available to people outside the United States. More of these visas and legal pathways would cut down on the unauthorized crossings and questionable asylum applications. And there’s nothing wrong with a reform discussion involving a reconsideration of the balance between family-based visas and employment and skills-based visas granted each year. I do not think we should forsake our tradition of uniting families in the U.S., but I also like the idea of being more thoughtful in attracting highly trained foreign workers to America.
Throughout the two days of our tour of the southwest border, local leader after local leader pointed out how rare it was to have a bipartisan group of Senators coming to the border together. Too often, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, the issue of immigration is viewed as a simple political cudgel with which to bludgeon the other party. I know that the radicals in charge of the House of Representatives will make any bipartisan compromise hard to pass this Congress, but I refuse to allow their dysfunction to act as a convenient excuse to not try to find common ground on the issue of immigration. This same group of Senators defied the odds and broke a thirty-year impasse on guns. Maybe we can capture that magic again.