EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A bipartisan group of senators heard El Paso residents’ views on migration a day after President Biden toured a stretch of border that has seen record migrant flows in the past three months.
Led by Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the lawmakers said it is clear to them the country needs new laws to bring about safe, humane, orderly and lawful migration. They just don’t know when a polarized Congress will be able to pass such laws.
“I’ve never seen the border in such a bad shape. […] I’ve never seen so many Americans dying of drugs. This is a crisis,” Cornyn said in a news conference at Bassett Middle School, which has been converted to a migrant shelter. “Our job is to address this difficult, multi-faceted problem. The challenge is coming up with a single solution.”
The four Republicans, three Democrats and one independent senator toured the border and met with local government officials and the heads of migrant services nonprofits on Monday. The locals stressed they have worked hard to cope with the release of migrants paroled from U.S. Border Patrol custody, averting a much larger humanitarian crisis. But they called on the senators to help bring about a permanent solution to unpredictable migration flows.
“We keep putting a Band-aid into a broken system. You can (throw) money at it, but then you’ll need to keep throwing money at it,” said El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser. “It’s not an El Paso problem, it’s not a U.S. problem, it’s an (international) problem. We need to work with other nations […] Money will be needed until something changes.”
Sinema said she’s aware that federal government inaction could leave border cities like El Paso and her Yuma, Arizona, vulnerable to further migration crises. She promised that the bipartisan coalition would continue working on possible solutions on Capitol Hill.
Sinema late last year proposed a framework for immigration reform she hopes can lead to a bill acceptable to Democrats and Republicans alike. “It would be premature to give estimates or dates (on immigration legislation). What’s more important is watching to see this (synergy) growing,” she said.
Cornyn said he, too, proposed “bipartisan, bicameral” immigration reform in the last Congress, but that failed to gain traction. He said it’s urgent to move ahead because the next major migrant crisis could be just around the corner. Migrant flows in El Paso and other key border cities have fallen substantially since the Supreme Court halted the federal court-mandated termination of Title 42 expulsions on Dec. 27.
“What we see today (in El Paso) is not what we saw three weeks ago, what we can see next week,” he said. “We have this bipartisan group of senators trying to navigate very difficult political terrain. An orderly, safe, humane and legal immigration system should be our goal. (But) we also have to be candid enough to admit what we see today is neither safe, nor orderly, nor humane or legal.”
Groups, officials stand by their mission
The senators also hosted a community roundtable on immigration Monday where representatives from humanitarian groups and law enforcement camps held firm to their beliefs.
El Paso Catholic Diocese Bishop Mark J. Seitz and Annunciation House executive director Ruben Garcia called on the senators to facilitate a path to asylum for migrants staying at a South El Paso church because they lack the immigration parole needed to move on. The migrants have been sleeping in and around Sacred Heart Church.
“It is not our job in the church to check people’s documents,” Seitz said, adding the church took in the migrants when temperatures dropped below freezing last month. “We are not in the smuggling business; we just want to make sure nobody is going to die on the street.”
“It is not our job in the church to check people’s documents. … We are not in the smuggling business; we just want to make sure nobody is going to die on the street.”El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz
Garcia called on visiting senators to give those and other “unprocessed” migrants a 24-to-48-hour window to present themselves to immigration authorities and apply for parole, but with a guarantee they will not be expelled from the country.
He also called on the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has increased its presence in El Paso since the city issued a disaster declaration last month, to guarantee it will not arrest migrants or volunteers that provide them assistance.
DPS Regional Director Jose Sanchez said at the meeting that the state has stepped in to guarantee the safety of its residents as federal agents charged with safekeeping the borders are tied up in paperwork processing migrants.
“This crisis has tied up Border Patrol agents. They were off the line. If you don’t have Border Patrol presence, it’s an open border” were drugs or dangerous people could come into Texas cities, he said.
Cornyn later said he could see DPS playing a role in helping out with the migrant crisis.
“We all have different roles to play,” Cornyn said. “It’s not the role of DPS or the National Guard to enforce immigration law, but if you have 2,000 miles of border and the federal government is not doing much, it’s up to the states to do what they can and I believe that is what (Texas Gov. Greg) Abbott is doing. […] The answer is for the federal government to step up and do their job.”