Like many Minnesotans, I followed online Congressman Pete Stauber's recent journey to the southern border. There was a familiarity for me. In 2010, I was sent to the Arizona-Mexico border as part of my work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I interviewed migrants in detention centers, rode along with Border Patrol officers, and surveyed the same vast stretches of land as Rep. Stauber. After three months, I returned home overwhelmed by the responsibility of safeguarding those who cross and those who protect the border; I can only imagine how Stauber felt after three days.
While it's tempting to succumb to those feelings, the situation at the border isn't a crisis. It's an opportunity for congressional leadership to find common ground and fulfill our nation's great promise. I offer a few ideas for those tasked with this daunting obligation.
Let's start by addressing President Donald Trump's concern about asylum waiting periods. U.S. authorities cannot detain individuals while they await decisions on their asylum requests, nor can those individuals be returned to their countries of origin during that time. What results is a practice disparagingly referred to as "catch and release." Instead, the Trump administration has opted to send thousands of migrants back to Mexico to await adjudication of their asylum cases, effectively passing this heart-wrenching buck to our southern neighbor.
It doesn't have to be this way. The Family Case Management Program and Intensive Supervision Appearance Program provide probation-style arrangements, allowing asylum-seekers to remain in the U.S. under supervision. When I worked for the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program in 2008, its success rate was 97 percent. The Family Case Management Program, which was cut in 2017, had an even higher success rate, with 100 percent of participants making it to their court appearances and 99 percent making their scheduled check-in times. Case workers meet with participants once a week to ensure they have temporary employment authorization documents and children are enrolled in school; case workers also can connect participants with local charitable organizations if basic needs aren't met at home.
While these programs need adjustments, they're less costly than detention. More importantly, they allow asylum-seekers to remain in the U.S. while awaiting decisions on their cases.
The growing number of cases awaiting adjudication in immigration court is another challenge facing policymakers. Many proposals aim to reduce this backlog, from hiring more immigration judges to granting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services authority to decide asylum claims. These ideas are worthy of consideration, but whatever happens Congress must be involved. Both Citizenship and Immigration Services and the executive office for immigration review (immigration court) are executive-branch agencies that risk further politicization with increased responsibility. Independent judiciaries are the cornerstone of our democracy, so legislators must insist on providing oversight mechanisms.
Finally, Congress must focus resources on the root of the issue. The vast majority of people attempting to enter the country are not crossing at rivers and uncharted areas; they're exhausted men, women, and children presenting themselves at points of entry to seek refuge from unspeakable violence and poverty gripping their countries. President Trump's recent proposal to cut off foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador will only exacerbate these issues, forcing more desperate families to seek safety and opportunity in the U.S.
Instead, Congress should introduce legislation that ties foreign aid to benchmarks that promote justice and ameliorate poverty. In exchange for U.S. aid, countries should be required to commit a percentage of their budgets to holding abusers and traffickers accountable. A 2018 study found that 96 percent of murders go unpunished in the Honduran town of San Pedro Sula. Domestic and gang violence has overwhelmed the criminal justice system, and corruption among government officials further erodes victims' trust. How can you blame people for wanting to escape and bring their children to safety?
During my years in immigration enforcement, I saw the types of activities many elected officials tend to highlight: human trafficking, drug smuggling, and acts of desperation fueled by unmitigated violence and poverty. It's easy to give in to fear when faced with these challenges and tempting to block it all out by putting up a wall.
However, if you push through that fear, the greatest of opportunities awaits. It's the opportunity to protect our country while treating those who seek refuge on our shores with dignity and compassion. It's the chance to show the world that America has not turned her back on those who still see us as a beacon of light.
While I'm no longer responsible for the laws designed to protect people and borders, I hope these suggestions serve as a start for those who have assumed this enormous duty.
Leah Phifer worked for the U.S. federal government from 2008 to 2017. She sought the DFL endorsement to represent Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District in 2018 and currently serves as a federal contractor for the USDA.