LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Border Report) — The migrant surge of the past year and recent White House efforts to cap the entry of refugees have convinced the mayor of New Mexico’s second-largest city that the U.S. urgently needs to reform its immigration laws.
The City of Las Cruces this year spent more than a million dollars in the housing and care of 17,000 asylum seekers sent its way by federal law enforcement agencies. The City had to turn to church-based nonprofits for help and managed to send 99% of the migrants on to their approved destinations.
Now that the wave of asylum seekers has turned to a trickle, the federal government has turned its attention to refugees, but Mayor Ken Miyagishima and the leaders of nearly 100 other American cities don’t like what’s coming.
In a letter sent last week to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the mayors urged the Trump administration to rescind a new cap on the number of refugees allowed into the country.
The letter states, “The Executive Order would fundamentally change the structure of the U.S. resettlement program by devolving key decisions primarily to the states and ultimately lead to a patchwork of conflicting policies running contrary to the purpose of a national resettlement program.
“It will also leave thousands of refugees, former refugees, and U.S. citizens without consistent and routine access to integration services and other supports. This is an unprecedented and harmful procedure, particularly given that resettlement agencies already consult regularly with state and local stakeholders regarding community needs.”
The new cap is 18,000, a steep reduction from the previous one of 50,000.
“The current immigration policies really need to be overhauled. There are a lot of situations for which there is no (apparent) process in place,” Miyagishima said. “The Administration’s actions seem to be of a very piecemeal nature instead of a broad vision of how it’s supposed to work.”
Miyagishima and other mayors say they are conscious of the contributions migrants have made to their communities. He says he’s the descendant of immigrants — from Japan on his father’s side and Mexico on his mother’s.
“I don’t know what caused them to leave or the circumstances of how they got into the country. I’m a product of immigrants and this country was built by immigrants,” Miyagishima said. “Without having a good reason of why you want to reduce the numbers, I’m not supportive of it.”
‘More than lip service’
When federal authorities decided to route asylum seekers surrendering to their agents near El Paso, Texas to Las Cruces, the city and nonprofits stepped up.
Las Cruces provided an initial infusion of $75,000 to help set up a nearby armory as a migrant shelter. That was when the first few hundred showed up; when thousands more asylum seekers came, the City ponied up two additional $500,000 contributions.
“We basically spoke with our financial backing; it wasn’t just lip service. We showed (the nonprofits) how appreciative we were of their help and we were able to help them assist those seeking asylum,” Miyagishima said.
The money went toward rent for the armory, overtime for public servants providing security and other basic services and pay for temporary workers. “We had a lot of volunteers during the day, but we needed them to spend the night with the asylum seekers, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. You can’t really expect volunteers to do that, so we hired some people.”
Las Cruces sits 45 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border and is proud of its agricultural and ranching roots (the local university’s mascot is an Aggie). More recently, it has experienced much growth in the technology sector, boasting companies like Virgin Galactic and New Mexico State University is involved in unmanned aerial vehicle research, according to city officials. Its business base also benefits from nearby White Sands Missile Range.
“Las Cruces is growing. I ran into a traffic jam this morning, and I’m not used to that,” Miyagishima said. “It reminds me of El Paso in the mid-1980s. … I’m seeing the same signs. In Las Cruces, construction is everywhere, jobs have increased, building permits are in record numbers and a lot of people are moving here. You can see California plates all over.”
But the city didn’t escape the consequences of the migrant surge that began in October of 2018 and only started to wane in late June.
City workers learned a lot about the human aspect of the immigration phenomenon with partners like El Calvario and San Jose, two church-based nonprofits that have been assisting migrants for many years, the Mayor said.
“We were able to learn from them. Us, we were able to process three to four migrants a month, but when you’re having to deal with 150 per day, that’s when you needed help,” Miyagishima said.