Analysis: Congressional border delegations raise awareness about migrant situation, but are they effective?

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A congressional delegation of Democrats are touring the Borderland, adding to the numerous coterie of border visits in recent weeks.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, is leading senior members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — including Rep. Norma Torres, D-California; Rep. Lou Correa, D-California; and Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado — to El Paso.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, led the delegation through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sites housing unaccompanied migrant children, where the delegation was briefed by government officials on the Biden administration’s procedures to ensure migrant children are properly cared for. 

Fort Bliss was recently announced as an emergency intake facility with a capacity of 5,000 to house unaccompanied migrant children.

Many of the children come from the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — where families face traumas that include poverty, natural disaster, crime and other conditions that drive parents to send their children to the U.S. 

The delegation will continue through Tuesday where Congress members are set to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and Border Patrol agents for additional site tours and briefings on the wind-down of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico under the previous administration’s policies. 

“When we see these delegations come, it keeps the issue in focus but we rarely see a definition of success,” said Victor Manjarrez, former a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief and current director at the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Carper’s delegation comes weeks after dueling delegations visited the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Sen. Ted Cruz led Republican colleagues on a boat tour of the Rio Grande where the delegation observed migrant women and children and claims to have been heckled by cartel operatives.

During the visit, Cruz criticized the Biden administration and accused the White House of concealing conditions. 

“What is occurring here on the border is heartbreaking and it is a tragedy,” said Cruz. 

Cruz’s delegation cited overcrowding in the facilities that were attributed to the Biden administration’s decision to halt construction of the border wall.

“If you don’t build it, they will come,” said Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota. 

Advocates vehemently disagree.

“Attempts to paint families and children seeking refuge as some kind of danger to the country are both absurd and disturbing. There is a long history of politicians trying to generate xenophobic and racist fears of people crossing the border. After four years of xenophobic and racist rhetoric, it’s time to uphold the American value of welcoming the persecuted and uphold — rather than evading — U.S. asylum laws,” said Eleanor Acer, senior director of Refugee Protection at Human Rights First.

Hundreds of miles west, however, photographs licensed exclusively to KTSM 9 News show migrants scaling and jumping from the border wall. 

Escobar led a bipartisan delegation to El Paso the same weekend as the Republicans in South Texas, in which met with government officials at migrant influx facilities, as well as legal and immigration advocates. 

“I feel hopeful for the first time in a very long time,” Escobar said.

Members of Congress wept during and after the delegation’s visit with unaccompanied migrant children, where the kids shared their names, stories and fears of being forgotten in a strange land away from home. 

Some of the children said they spent as many as 12 days traveling through the Mexican desert.

“All of them seeking hope, but having made that dangerous and treacherous journey. We should be empathetic with that,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, at a news conference after touring the El Paso Sector.

Weeks before Cruz and Escobar’s delegation to the border, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, led a Republican delegation to El Paso and declined invitations from Escobar to work together.

Scholars, political scientists, and stakeholders have been quick to point out that despite the attention, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have yet to pass policies that address the migrant situation with any measurable benchmarks. 

“It’s funny,” said Manjarrez, “you’ll hear one party saying we need border security and the other side saying we need humanitarian solutions — and they’re the same thing.

“It’s frustrating from a taxpayer perspective because not only has nothing been passed in Congress, nothing has been brought up,” he continued.

In January, President Joe Biden sent his immigration bill to Congress.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would create a new immigration system buttressed by border security and realistic pathways to citizenship; the bill does not specifically emphasize enforcement.

Part of Biden’s bill prioritizes smart border control through supplementing existing border resources with technology and infrastructure. This includes providing more funding to DHS to expand and enhance policies to screen and identify narcotics and other contraband by land, sea and air.

Biden’s bill authorizes DHS to implement new strategies to manage and secure the southern border with a focus on flexible solutions and integrating technology to optimize CBP operations. 

The bill addresses some key causes of migration from the Northern Triangle that includes a $4 billion four-year plan to tackle underlying reasons for fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras using a multi-agency approach.

According to Fakhoury Global Immigration, a global law firm that specializes in business-based immigration, it’s unlikely Biden’s bill will pass as-is, but there is hope that smaller pieces could be pushed forward. 

Last month, the House passed two immigration bills. The American Dream and Promise Act and the Farmworkforce Modernization Act address legislative issues included in Biden’s bill by providing broad pathways to citizenship that’s facing Republican opposition. 

Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Florida, laid out a rebuttal to the Democrats’ proposal that includes more funding for border infrastructure to include enhanced physical barriers and technology, asylum reform and enhanced enforcement to remove criminals attempting to enter the U.S. 

Salazar’s plan also includes protections for “Dreamers” and solutions for undocumented immigrants.

“What is an acceptable level of border security?” asks Manjarrez. “I think you could solve that if both sides would sit down and talk to each other.”

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