An overcrowded, fenced area holds families at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, TX, on 10 June 2019 (Thomas Cizauskas).
President Biden hasn’t been in office for 100 days and already the evolving situation at the US/MX border is at the top of his agenda. Over the next four years, the President has a unique opportunity to rebuild our country’s immigration system so that it’s welcoming and compassionate.
For too long, the United States has used “deterrence” and punishment as its primary tools for managing the arrival of migrants at our southern border. A deterrence approach is punitive and results in policies like torturing migrants in detention and separating children from their parents.
Instead of punishing people for looking for a better life, the United States should:
- address the root causes that force them to migrant in the first place,
- make it easier for them to get the legal protections they need to thrive,
- invest in the communities that care of them,
- and demilitarize the border region.
In this article, we want to give you an update on what’s happening at the US/MX border right now. As we read the news and hear from legislators, we need to be aware of incendiary language that seeks to mischaracterize what’s happening in order to distort conversations in the public square and in government policy.
St. Columban preached that “a life unlike our own can be our teacher.” When we hear about what’s happening at the US/MX border, we must ensure that we’re listening first-and-foremost to the lived experiences of vulnerable people.
How we got here
Almost all of the people arriving at the US/MX border have been forced to migrate from their homes. As British-Somali poet and refugee, Warsan Shire, wrote in her famous poem “Conversations about Home,” “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
The Catholic Church recognizes that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives, and the lives of their families, if they cannot do so in their country of origin. The migrant’s story reminds us of a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching: that the goods of the earth are intended to benefit all people. It is never God’s will that some of God’s children live in luxury while others have nothing.
There are long-standing injustices (or "root causes") that have forced migrants to leave their homes, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA that destabilized their economies and interventionist military policies like the ones that funded a government coup in Honduras in 2009 and an indigenous genocide in Guatemala. In the past few years, more and more migrants are being forced to leave their homes because of droughts and food insecurity caused by climate change.
These injustices have been exacerbated by two recent hurricanes, as well as the economic recession caused by the pandemic.
The New York Times told the story of Mr. Dagoberto Pineda from Honduras. A “massive hurricane hurtled through Mr. Pineda’s town late last year, destroying the banana plantation he worked on, owned by Chiquita Brands International. After years of paying Mr. Pineda about $12 a day [less than $400 a month] to help fill American grocery stores with fresh fruit, the company laid him off.”
The United States has a moral obligation to address these root causes. However, this will take time, and we have migrants arriving at our borders searching for safety and security right now. We need to address the root causes of their migration at the same time that we respond to their immediate needs. Lawmakers can do this by ensuring that the US/MX border is a place of welcome and compassion.
A Manufactured Emergency
President Trump managed the US/MX border with a deterrence and punishment focused approach, implementing numerous policies that made it next-to-impossible for migrants to access the legal protection they needed to thrive. These policies included family separation, as well as “metering” and “Remain in Mexico.” You can learn more about those last two policies here. President Biden has ended these policies.
President Trump also weaponized Title 42 (the United States Code that deals with public health, social welfare, and civil rights) in order to use the pandemic as a pretext to deny all migrants the opportunity to ask for protection at all. This effectively shut down the US/MX border to all migration. President Biden has continued this policy for now by expelling single adults and some families, but is allowing unaccompanied children to cross.
For two years, these policies have created a bottleneck at the US/MX border and we are witnessing the consequences of that bottleneck now.
But President Trump was not the only one responsible for the federal government’s inability to compassionately process migrants arriving at the US/MX border. For decades, the United States has been investing in weapons, security technology, and enforcement officers at the US/MX border. However, it has failed to invest in immigration judges, licensed asylum officers, child welfare professionals, medical professionals, and interpreters, who provide the screenings and services needed for a robust asylum system.
For decades, the United States has also relied on holding migrants in detention centers in prison-like conditions. This is a problem we are seeing right now with the increase in the number of unaccompanied children (more on this below). There are non-restrictive, community-based alternatives to detention, like the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), which helps families navigate the legal system outside of restrictive custody. According to a report by the Women's Refugee Commission, FCMP "achieved a 99% compliance rate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and immigration court requirements at a fraction of the cost of detention and supported hundreds of families in finding stability in their communities, supporting them with their immigration requirements, and beginning to prepare them for the outcomes of their case."
However, the Department of Homeland Security (or DHS) ended this program in June 2017 for political reasons under the Trump administration.
The United States has been investing in the wrong kind of border infrastructure for decades. Instead, we need to reimagine port-of-entry as “hospitality centers,” where migrants can be processed quickly and released into the community, whether to their families or to a nonprofit entity like Annunciation House in El Paso, TX.
After taking office, President Biden said he would reverse President Trump’s policy of turning away unaccompanied children who cross the border without their parents.
On March 13, President Biden made headlines by announcing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would help care for the number of unaccompanied migrant teens and children filling detention cells and tent shelters along the US/MX border.
FEMA’s deployment is a sign that Biden’s administration is taking this seriously and ensuring people are processed and transferred efficiently. We must be clear that the United States has the capacity and the resources to do anything we decide we want to do, including protecting vulnerable children and families in need. This is a moral challenge!
According to the Washington Post, 500 or more children are arriving in Border Patrol custody each day, with nearly 700 on March 10. As of March 9, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) agency had just over 500 shelter beds available to accommodate them. ORR’s shelters usually hold over 13,000 children, but that number was reduced to about 8,000 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. By March 11, the shelter population grew to about 8,500 as ORR relaxed some of these measures.
No matter the situation, however, detaining migrants – and especially children – is a cruel practice that can have life-long psychology trauma.
While the administration says it is working to quickly release children to the custody of sponsors, this moral challenge is yet another reason why the federal government should replace detention with non-restrictive, community-based alternatives. As FEMA is working to provide adequate shelter to the children crossing the border right now, the Department of Homeland Security should revive and implement programs like the Family Case Management Program.
In addition to his administration’s immediate response to the moral challenge on the US/MX border, President Biden also unveiled “The Citizenship Act of 2021,” one of the most ambitious immigration reform bills in decades. According to the bill’s Senator sponsor – Senator Robert Menendez (NJ-D) - it would “provide an earned path to citizenship, address the root causes of migration and responsibly manage the southern border, and reform the immigrant visa system.”
At this time, however, there are not enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass it.
Instead, this week the House will vote on two smaller legislative packages: the “Dream and Promise Act of 2021” and the “Farmworker Modernization Act of 2021.” These bills would give legal status to immigrants brought to the United States as children, those with “temporary protected status” (TPS), and farm workers.
In the Senate, all three pieces of legislation seem unlikely to pass. Some Republicans have suggested adding border security language to the “Dream and Promise Act of 2021.” However, emphasizing border “security” rather than addressing the root causes of migration and the humanitarian needs of migrant families is what caused this situation in the first place. Columbans have been clear that militaristic solutions to humanitarian problems never bring peace and cannot make up for corrupt and unjust policies.
We encourage all legislators to put the needs of vulnerable people front-and-center in any proposed solution.
What you can do
This is a brief overview of the current situation on the US/MX border, and the measures taken by Biden’s administration as it solidifies its strategy.
While the migrants coming to the US/MX border are certainly fleeing from crises in their home countries, their arrival at the United States’ doorstep is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the “better angels of our nature.” This moment is a unique opportunity for us to reimagine an immigration system that acknowledges their inherit dignity and treats them with compassion.
We encourage you to write to President Biden to urge him to prioritize a compassionate response.
If you are able to donate funds, we invite you to consider supporting the work Annunciation House in El Paso, TX, which has provided hospitality to migrants released from federal custody for the past forty years.
The task of rebuilding our immigration system will not be easy. But we know as people of faith that God calls us to live in solidarity with others, especially with those who live in poverty or are marginalized.
At the border, Pope Francis reminds us that we have "an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ, who identified himself with the foreigner who has been accepted or rejected in every age."