It should be clear to all Americans by now that there is a very real crisis occurring at our southern border. It’s an immigration crisis, with over 100,000 border crossings per month and unprecedented numbers of families with children.
It’s a drug crisis, too. With 40 percent to 60 percent of border patrol agents being moved from their stations on the border to process migrants and otherwise address humanitarian needs, cartels have had an easier time than ever bringing drugs across our border. This includes crystal meth, fentanyl, and other drugs that are devastating communities all across Ohio.
And it’s a humanitarian crisis. Asylum seekers and migrants often face violence, sickness, and tough terrain on their dangerous journey, and many are abused by human smugglers. The last time the system was overwhelmed like this in 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stopped doing background checks on sponsors for unaccompanied children. They wound up placing Guatemalan children with human traffickers, who put the kids into forced labor on an egg farm in Marion, where the children were forced to live and work in squalid conditions.
When the system gets overwhelmed, people suffer. The unprecedented influx of families and children has overwhelmed the border patrol processing centers, detention facilities, health care providers, and non-profits like Catholic Charities that have stepped in to help.
Earlier this month, I traveled to McAllen, Texas, so that I could see firsthand what is happening in the border. I toured facilities, spoke to migrants and met with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and leadership from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the ground.
I saw hundreds of individuals held at the Donna processing facility, and I was able to speak to both families and unaccompanied children. The five or six families I spoke to were all from the so-called Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I’m sure other families had requested asylum out of fear for gang violence or other forms of persecution, but each parent I stopped to talk to said poverty had driven the family north, where they were seeking a better life for their families. That’s certainly understandable.
However, there’s a long list of people from the Northern Triangle and other developing countries waiting patiently to come here through the proper, legal channels, under which America annually admits hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
I also saw hundreds of single men and women held at the McAllen Border Patrol Station. These buildings aren’t supposed to hold individuals for more than a few days, but many had been there for more than a month because Democrats in Congress have withheld funding for more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds, causing an overflow at existing detention facilities.
Finally, I saw that the men and women of CBP are doing their best in a very tough situation. I recently strongly supported an additional $4.6 billion in humanitarian funding to ensure CBP has the resources to handle the influx of people humanely, but we need a long-term, legislative fix to avoid crises like this in the future.
Two issues help explain this surge – the way we handle asylum claims and children. First, under a federal court case called the Flores settlement, children can’t be held in a CBP facility for more than 20 days. Because it takes longer than this to process families with children, many are released into the United States pending a court hearing, which, because of a backlog of about one million cases, takes more than two years. In the end, only 15 percent of migrants requesting asylum prove they have a credible fear of persecution and are granted asylum. In the meantime, migrants continue to present themselves to the Border Patrol and request asylum because they know that if they do so, they’ll be released into the country. Once in, they can acquire work permits and can wait years to be called for a hearing. And once they’re called, it’s estimated that fewer than half of these individuals show up to court.
After seeing the border firsthand, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to reform our laws in three ways. First, by fixing our broken asylum laws and working with the United Nations on a refugee alternative so individuals with a valid asylum claim don’t have to travel to our border. Second, by overturning the parts of court rulings that necessitate releasing people into the United States if a child accompanies them. Finally, by permitting the return of unaccompanied children to their families in their home countries, provided they’re returned to a safe place.
These measures, combined with more assistance from Mexico and effective aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, will help get our immigration system working again. I’m committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on bipartisan solutions to alleviate this very real crisis at the border.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.