It was 8:30 AM, Thursday, December 22 and I was delivering a load of clothing and school supplies to a migrant shelter in Juárez, Mexico called Respettrans when I tripped on the ragged sidewalk and crashed to the pavement. The four young migrants helping me were stunned and helped me into the building where a crowd gathered and two nurses from the states of Guerrero and Michoacán, Mexico insisted on washing and bandaging these scrapes. I was more embarrassed than hurt but this incident crystallized what I have experienced in four years of meeting with hundreds of migrants in shelters and on the streets of Juárez and Palomas, Mexico, El Paso, Texas and Deming, New Mexico.
These are overwhelmingly good people who have made grueling, dangerous and expensive trips to our southern border in order to escape unbearable situations of violence, corruption, poverty and now climate change in their home countries. They deserve humane treatment and a fair resolution to their issues.
What are the issues and what could be done?
Although our immigration laws are extremely complex and contain all sorts of special circumstances for different groups or countries, I see five categories of migrants.
1. Guest workers. Our farmers and construction companies need workers but the numbers allowed to come into the country on seasonal permits are way too low. As a result, many of those who do come do so illegally and then stay here because it is too difficult to go back and forth.
Increasing the number of permits would allow them to return home after a season of work here and would reduce the number who are here illegally.
2. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). These are kids who were brought
here by their parents when very young. For the most part, they have absolutely no ties or knowledge of the countries from which they came and to send them back there would be shameful.
3. Migrants here illegally. The numbers are huge and most are migrants who came legally and
simply overstayed their visas. Many have been here for years or decades. Why not treat them as
we treat the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who disobey the law? Assess a penalty
and then let them get on with their lives.
4. Those arriving illegally. On September 13, I had the opportunity to be with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents as they patrolled the mountainous area west of El Paso and Juárez and saw how efficiently yet humanely they apprehended those attempting to cross illegally. This “human wall” is much more effective than the steel one where “coyotes” can cross in seconds using lightweight but sturdy ladders. The question is one of having enough personnel.
Even though these migrants – mostly young men who would not qualify for asylum – are coming
illegally, they are for the most part looking for work, not smuggling drugs. All studies show that
the overwhelming majority of drugs entering the U.S. come through ports of entry in big trucks.
Although we cannot allow them to enter illegally, keep in mind the economic pressures they face in their home countries. The minimum wage per day in Mexico is less than half the hourly minimum wage in Denver. Per capita income in countries like Guatemala and Honduras ranges from roughly $5,000 to $8,000 a year as compared to about $36,000 here.
5. Asylum seekers. In terms of sheer numbers, this is clearly the major issue and a twofold one. First, going back at least several US Presidents, there has been a lack of focus on the growing number of migrants awaiting their final asylum hearings before a judge and now the backlog is well over a million cases.
More immediate is the plight of the thousands who are arriving at the border only to find their pathway blocked by Title 42. I was impressed with the efficiency of the CBP’s screening process that I observed on September 13 but the issue is where do these migrants go once they have been screened. For example, despite the well coordinated government and private sector efforts in El Paso, there were huge crowds sleeping on Father Rahm Street the morning of December 22 before the temperature plummeted.
The situation is worse on the Mexican side because the existing shelters are full. Establishing a joint Mexico-USA Border Task Force should be high on the agenda of President Biden’s upcoming trip to Mexico.
This will be a test of both our humanity and our ingenuity but despite this particular challenge,
the other issues I’ve mentioned can easily be resolved if we tackle them in a spirit of practicality
Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Commissioner
of Agriculture and has been traveling to the border to document conditions there at least
monthly for the last decade. He can be reached at Morganemail@example.com.