Top House Democrats offered their ante in the border crisis debate Wednesday, saying the surge of Central American migrants can be solved by sending more money to the region, and by shifting resources in the U.S.
The Democrats, chairs of key committees or subcommittees, said President Trump has botched the issue from the start by misunderstanding the causes of the increase in immigrants living illegally in the U.S., and is now proposing “heartless” policies that won’t stop the flow of people leaving Central America.
Led by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson and Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, the Democrats said answers lie not in stiffer U.S. laws, but in more generous taxpayer assistance to Central America, and better cooperation with Latin American partners.
They also told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen she needs to figure out better ways to deploy her people so they can better welcome those who do reach the U.S. and make asylum claims.
They rejected Mr. Trump’s demands for faster deportation powers and permission to hold more migrants in detention until their cases are heard, calling them “ill-advised.”
“Rather than learning from its mistakes, the Trump administration is doubling down by threatening to shut down the border while asking Congress to implement heartless measures ostensibly to deter children and families who are lawfully presenting themselves to border personnel and requesting asylum protection,” the Democratic lawmakers said.
The letter’s focus on so-called “push” factors in Central America is a direct challenge to Mr. Trump, who instead blames the “pull” factors drawing them to the U.S.
Security experts say the “pull” factors are likely a bigger part of the recent surge of people. They point out that the murder rate in the three key Central American countries has dropped in recent years, and point to other countries that are worse off, but where the smuggler networks aren’t as established.
Homeland Security officials say migrants who have successfully exploited “loopholes” in U.S. law are coaching relatives and former neighbors back home on those methods, which are remarkably successful in helping immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally gain a foothold.
According to Homeland Security officials, some 98 percent of migrant families caught at the border in 2017 were still in the country at the beginning of this year.
Mr. Trump this week said Congress must take action to close loopholes, such as the Flores court settlement that forces the government to release the families before their cases can be heard.
Unless lawmakers act, Mr. Trump said, he’ll shut down the border.
“Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border!” the president tweeted. “If no action, Border, or large sections of Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!”
Mr. Trump has not said exactly what he has in mind by closing the border but Homeland Security officials say they have had plans for years for shutting down ports of entry.
Homeland Security officials say that only congressional action can solve the situation, but they said they’re taking steps in the meantime to try to soften the edges of the crisis.
Ms. Nielsen, the department secretary, was in El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday and will be in Yuma, Arizona, on Thursday to get a first-hand look at what’s going on.
This week she ordered Customs and Border Protection to take up to 2,000 officers from ports of entry and redeploy them between the ports to assist the Border Patrol, which has been overwhelmed by the migrant increase.
Up to 40 percent of Border Patrol agents’ duties in some areas are now occupied by transporting, processing or staying with immigrants living in the U.S. illegally as they undergo medical care. That takes them out of the field.
The CBP officers will be tasked with those babysitting duties, freeing agents to get back to patrolling the border.
Ms. Nielsen also ordered an increase in a program pioneered earlier this year to send asylum seekers who illegally jump the U.S.-Mexico border to go back to Mexico to wait while their cases proceed in America’s immigration courts.
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