What I Learned On My Trip To Our Border
This weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the US-Mexico border, in preparation for upcoming Congressional votes and hearings concerning border security and humanitarian issues. Faced with conflicting information about the situation on the ground, and the President’s threat to shut down the government (again)over his demand for a border wall, I wanted to visit the area to get the facts. What I saw was a complex border situation that requires a multifaceted approach, and bore little relation to the inflammatory rhetoric coming from the White House.
The trip was organized by two of my colleagues, Representatives Veronica Escobar from Texas and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico. We were joined by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
Our tour took us along the border from the city of El Paso, to rural areas of New Mexico, which is the second busiest border region in the country.
We met with Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security staff (both on and off the record), local officials, medical personnel, immigration advocates and refugees. We toured a busy pedestrian and vehicle port of entry, detention and processing areas, and a non-profit refugee shelter. Our Border Patrol guides drove us along the Rio Grande where it divides the cities of El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico, and gave us a tour of a mountain top staging area where rabbits and cows outnumber people. Agents showed us the resources they use to patrol and protect our border, including mustangs, ATVs, and trucks equipped with infrared cameras and radar. We saw demonstrations of pepper spray guns and cargo truck X-ray machines, and were briefed on air and sea enforcement.
We heard repeatedly from dedicated law enforcement officials that they need more funding: for people, for infrastructure, for roads and technology. While touring the border in a CBP vehicle, we saw concrete and chain link fences, steel slats and vehicle bollards which already exist along much of the border. But without exception, the officials with whom we met said that they need a mix of tools to secure the border and that mix varies dramatically from place to place. No one said that a wall was the solution. In fact, several border agents scoffed at the idea and repeated versions of, “If you build a 20-foot wall, they’ll bring a 21-foot ladder.”
Border agents also confirmed that the surge of immigrants at our southern border is overwhelmingly composed of families with children, fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries. These refugees do not sneak into our country, or run away from border patrol agents — they run to them. They present themselves to authorities and ask for asylum, whether at U.S. ports of entry or, when those ports are closed which is increasingly common under this administration, at the next available opportunity. Several agents told us about refugees walking up to their cars or duty stations and knocking on a window to request asylum.
We had the opportunity to meet with one of those refugees, Elana, and her adorable 3 and 5-year-old daughters. They are currently living at Annunciation House, a volunteer-run shelter for immigrants who have been released from custody while awaiting a hearing. Elana is from Guatemala, but her daughters were born here in the U.S. and are American citizens. Elana had returned to Guatemala for family reasons but found conditions too harsh to raise her girls and fearing for their safety, she decided to return to the U.S..
Under our current immigration laws, asylum is the only legal path of entry for Elana. A visa application could take decades, leaving her a terrible choice: raising her American daughters amidst dangers in Guatemala or trying to reenter the U.S. illegally with the girls.
So, in October, Elana walked across the border with her daughters and requested asylum. Despite the Trump administration’s claim that it reversed its family separation policy in June, Elana’s daughters were taken from her and placed in foster care.
No reason was given for this separation, as Elana has no criminal record and has never been accused of child endangerment. Yet, it took days for her to make contact with her daughters through a social worker. With a lot of luck and the assistance of pro bono lawyers, she was released and reunited with the girls after four months, just a few hours before we met her.
Elana described how much of a toll being separated from her little girls has had on her, but she didn’t have to. We could see it in her face, in her tears, and in the way she and her younger daughter clung to each other. Her older daughter was withdrawn, and we learned that she was having difficulty with the reunion. It was easy to see how conflicted the little girl was, her feelings of abandonment when she told us that her mother had missed her 5th birthday the week before, and her struggle to reconcile the attachment she had formed to her foster family.
So, while we did not find a national security emergency at the border, we did find a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to Elana being separated from her daughters, we saw dozens of women and children in holding cells, sleeping side by side on benches and cement floors with no room to walk between their bodies, no windows, and no place for the children to play. Agents told us that 80–90 percent of the detainees are refugee families, not drug dealers or criminals.
With the best will in the world, the law enforcement agents we met with admitted that they are struggling to do their jobs because they don’t have the facilities, personnel or resources to process refugees. The administration’s failure to address this humanitarian crisis, through a combination of diplomacy, foreign aid, and humane border security resources and policies has created a crisis for our law enforcement officers. They worry about the bad guys they might not catch when they have to station a border patrol officer at a hospital to “guard” a sick refugee child. They need resources to address the facts, not a crisis dreamed up by those sowing racist division for political gain.
Given the complexities of border security, law enforcement, human rights, and thousands of miles of the border, it is not surprising that the situation requires more nuanced solutions than tweets or campaign slogans. We need to look at the facts and consult the stakeholders on the ground.
My colleague, Representative Hoyer, said it best: “Securing the border presents challenges, but it is not a crisis that demands a wall. We need smart strategic border security investments that treat migrants with dignity and respect.”