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McAllen Monitor: EDITORIAL: Immigrant surge — Time for Congress to act

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McAllen, Texas, December 31, 2014 | comments

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com


Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2014 10:00 am

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth and final in a 2014 series of Monitor editorials about the challenges of immigration.

 

See videos, photos and read all of our commentary at www.myrgv.com/brokenborders.

 

In 2014, South Texas became the epicenter of an immigration surge unlike any our country has experienced in its history.

 

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors, entered our lands illegally this past year. They were driven by crime, gangs and poverty in their homelands — most from Central America — and lured by freedoms and prosperity that they believe await them in the United States.

 

But for so many, the journey was perilous and fraught with unspeakable horrors.

 

Young girls and women were raped in multitudes; young boys were held hostage in stash houses on both sides of the border, and over 67,300 unaccompanied children came alone to a new world where they know no one and brought with them nothing.

 

Their entry here changed life for our Rio Grande Valley communities, as well.

 

Local law enforcement, state police and federal agents were taxed. We lacked adequate shelters to house and process immigrants. And our federal immigration court system became overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of new cases on top of the thousands of backlogged cases.

 

The surge — which added to the 11 million immigrants already illegally in the United States — spurred heated debates from the halls of Congress, to the halls of our Legislature in Austin, to our churches, workplaces and our own homes.

 

The need to reform our broken U.S. immigration system became self-evident this past year.

 

In November, President Barack Obama issued several executive actions to temporarily fix immigration-related problems. But long-term solutions have yet to be decided or enacted by Congress. And several lawmakers have vowed to reverse the president’s actions when Congress reconvenes in January.

 

Since August, The Monitor’s editorial board has extensively studied this immigration crisis in a special six-part series. We examined and investigated how this influx of immigrants have taken its toll on law enforcement, which lack resources to adequately secure our borders; its humanitarian strife and how our communities have responded with open hearts and wallets; the backlog in our federal immigration court system, which does not have enough immigration judges; legislative proposals to reform immigration; and the economic outcomes of how such a population influx will change the fabric of our society for generations to come.

 

In reporting this series, we’ve been struck by the candor from dozens of experts. This includes:

 

>> Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, who told us there must be a way for undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, legally work and go to church, yet still maintain a tracking system to know who is coming into our country and whether they pose a criminal threat to our society.

 

>> Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who has mobilized an army of volunteers to help feed, clothe and medically assist immigrants. She opened our eyes to the rapes and dangers these immigrants endure while trying to come here. And she reminded us how our country was founded by immigrants and has a duty to help these refugees once they cross our border.

>>U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said 70 percent of immigrants ordered to report to federal immigration hearings aren't showing up for court. He offered legislative solutions that would streamline the hearing process and hold more immigrants accountable -- something we sorely need.

 

>> Linda Brandmiller, chairman of a State Bar of Texas subcommittee studying immigration, alleged mistreatment of immigrants in federally-run detention facilities. She suggested that electronic monitoring devices be administered to immigrants. This would allow for more to be released and safely monitored and fewer to be held in custody. We’re told now that a similar project is being tested in South Texas.

 

>> State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, urges de-politicizing the issue and said we must work together to maximize our efforts to stop the drug runners, coyotes and smugglers who are driving immigrants this way.

 

>> Dr. Steve Murdock, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said our country, and Texas especially, will be able to handle the population influx. His statements were backed up with data that shows a higher percentage of immigrants hold jobs than American-born workers and would help to fill a dwindling population decline projected for upcoming years.

 

>> U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa said we must find a way to incorporate undocumented immigrants as workers into our society — such as through an expanded guest worker program — because they can help contribute to our U.S. economy.

 

We agree with Congressman Hinojosa and the other experts who have taken the time to be interviewed, write guest columns and to lend their perspective on this multi-faceted and complex issue. After hours of discussions, editorial board meetings and studying this issue, we have proposed dozens of solutions throughout these editorials, which we believe could be instrumental in reforming and improving our immigration system.

 

As Congress convenes on Jan. 6 and as the Texas Legislature takes to its respective chambers on Jan. 13, we sincerely hope that our federal, state and local lawmakers will take seriously our recommendations and that they will consider how these suggestions might help to fix our broken immigration system:

 

Law enforcement

The Department of Homeland Security this month released statistics for fiscal year 2014 that showed federal agents conducted a total of 577,295 removals and returns of immigrants. The Border Patrol reported 486,651 apprehensions nationwide, up 13.5 percent from 420,789 in fiscal 2013. The increase is largely attributable to the influx in unaccompanied children and family units through South Texas.

 

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said this data reflects “a number of complex and shifting factors, most notably the 68 percent increase in migration from countries other than Mexico, predominately from Central America.”

 

In 2014, the McAllen Border Patrol station was the No. 1 station in the nation for illegal immigrant apprehensions, Raul Ortiz, deputy chief patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector, told us. Apprehensions ranged from 30 to 300 per day.

 

To accommodate the influx, Johnson’s department had to substantially shift resources to the RGV Sector, which spans from Rio Grande City to Brownsville to Corpus Christi.

 

Nevertheless, federal funding and resources to properly secure the border here are not what it should be, according to confidential congressional documents obtained by The Monitor. Funding to Texas for a DHS-run State Homeland Security Grant Program has substantially decreased annually to $18 million in 2013 — from a high of $60 million in 2009.

 

Given that we are at the epicenter of this crisis, substantially more funds should be funneled into law enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. There also needs to be additional money for equipment, technical support and improving infrastructure here, such as better roads and trails along the border for agents to patrol and travel.

 

We also believe that local law enforcement and state troopers can better assist federal agents, rather than the National Guard troops — which were deployed here earlier this year by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

 

While we commend the brave men and women from the National Guard who have come to serve, we are concerned that Texas now is financially bearing the burden of protecting our nation’s southernmost border. That should be the responsibility of our federal government.

 

The National Guard deployment has cost Texas $12 million per month. And although Gov. Perry has called on the federal government to reimburse the state, Texas is footing the bill by diverting $38 million in public safety funds earmarked for emergency radio infrastructure.

 

On Dec. 1, the Texas Legislative Budget Board (LBB) voted unanimously to approve an additional $86.1 million to continue the state’s border security efforts through August 2015. We commend this action as these funds also will reduce the number of National Guard troops in our area from 1,000 to 200 beginning next month. It also will allow an additional 640 Department of Public Safety troopers to be hired to increase existing enforcement forces. Camera and aircraft surveillance also will be expanded to protect Texans and hopefully will thwart the cartels that are engaged in smuggling illegal drugs, people and firearms across our border.

 

As we have advocated, we believe these additional resources are necessary to keep agents safe and to better secure our border.

 

We also agree with state Sen. Hinojosa, who sits on the LBB, and who said after the vote: “Utilizing the National Guard creates an image of militarization of the border and sends the wrong message. There is also a concern with the lack of coordination between the National Guard, DPS, and our local law enforcement. We can make better use of our money.”

 

There must be better coordination among law enforcement agencies. Therefore we support a joint enforcement task force announced Nov. 20 by President Obama to better strengthen and secure our Southwest border.

 

The Southern Border and Approaches Campaign will involve three joint task forces and will integrate the capabilities of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Its goal is to “enforce our immigration laws and interdict individuals seeking to illegally cross our land, sea, and air borders; degrade transnational criminal organizations; and decrease the terrorism threat to the Nation, all without impeding the flow of lawful trade, travel, and commerce,” according to a memo by Johnson to the heads of all those agencies.

 

Obama announced that security measures will be prioritized and that agents will first pursue immigrants with criminal, drug and/or gang histories and those with prior arrests and multiple misdemeanors.

Congress must financially support the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign by appropriating sufficient funds.

 

However, that remains uncertain because although congressional lawmakers passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill earlier this month, they opted not to fund the Department of Homeland Security long term. Instead, they approved a temporary continuing resolution, which expires on Feb. 27. This is despite warnings from Johnson during a Dec. 2 congressional hearing that his department’s enforcement objectives cannot be met unless properly funded throughout the next fiscal year.

 

Humanitarian cause

Although there are many who debate the use of federal taxpayer funds regarding this immigration crisis, we know that it is necessary. This includes at the local level, where our Rio Grande Valley communities have especially sacrificed and need to be reimbursed.

 

In June, the City of McAllen spent $70,000 alone to help immigrants by lending tents and mobile bathroom facilities and other support to Sacred Heart Catholic Church where Sister Norma’s organization set up a makeshift respite area. McAllen Mayor Jim Darling estimated last summer that expenses could top $676,576 and said they are requesting some reimbursements.

 

Located just blocks from the downtown bus station, more than 15,000 immigrants were helped this year at Sacred Heart through the thousands of volunteers who descended upon the church and thousands of donations made there.

 

Indeed our Valley communities have been a model for our nation on how to selflessly help those in need. And we have demonstrated to the nation how communities can contribute —not just expect the federal government to provide all.

 

Congratulations to Sister Norma, 61, who on Christmas Eve was named a finalist as Texan of the Year by The Dallas Morning News following a column nominating her earlier this month by The Monitor. On Jan. 9, Sister Norma is to receive the prestigious Keep the Dream Alive Award in Washington, D.C., as one of only three nationwide winners of the Catholic Charities USA award that recognizes outstanding community service.

 

And although the unprecedented waves of thousands of mothers and young children crossing has subsided from last summer, the surge continues. There was a spike in immigrants at Sacred Heart over the holidays — with more than 100 people helped there per day, we’re told. Therefore we repeat our plea for the Red Cross to come and help administer medical care and counseling services. There is much mental and physical mending to do here, much more than our volunteers can alone handle.

 

We also call on lawmakers in Washington to consider immigrants fleeing from Mexico and Central America — and who have no criminal history and do not pose a security threat to our nation — as refugees. If labeled as such, they would be eligible for asylum.

 

President Obama’s recent actions included enabling about 4 million undocumented parents of children who are here legally to be allowed to temporarily stay, however they must have been in the country prior to Jan. 1, 2014. What will this do for the hundreds of thousands who came this past year?

 

Furthermore we must help these countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as we did Colombia in the 1980s battle a drug war. We must encourage and support their economic development and law enforcement.

 

Immigration courts

Our immigration courts are woefully overburdened and overly complex and not properly equipped to track the thousands who fail to show up for court.

 

We agree with President Obama when last month he said he wanted more accountability of the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally and for them to “come out of the shadows.” But with only 59 immigration courts nationwide, implementation of these rules will require substantially more courts and judges, including more courts in South Texas where currently the only such courts are located in Harlingen.

 

Nationwide, as of July 1 there were 375,503 pending immigration cases; 89 percent of which were of adults. Some cases had been pending since 2005.

 

A backlog in courts has caused other problems with the immigration system, such as increased detention times for thousands of mostly women and children. Many are being housed in federal facilities, such as one opened earlier this month in Dilley, Texas, which holds 2,400 beds and is the largest detention facility in the country.

 

Three formal immigration courtrooms have been set up at the Dilley facility where defendants will be videoconferenced with immigration judges. Critics claim the facility — which costs $296 per detainee per day — is an inhumane and expensive way to house immigrants. Immigration lawyers worry that immigrants are not being fairly represented or given credible fear interviews to determine whether they are eligible for asylum.

 

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care of all unaccompanied minors, has been slow or unresponsive to media requests to release detention numbers this past year. We call on HHS to better detail how many children are being held in these facilities and the full cost to our federal government. Furthermore, we request all detained children receive proper legal counsel and that their court cases be expedited so as to lessen the time these children remain incarcerated.

 

Immigration attorney Brandmiller told us that the use of ankle bracelets to monitor immigrants would be more humane and cost effective. Last week, the Associated Press reported, citing confidential federal documents, that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this month launched a program that will place GPS-enabled ankle devices on some parents caught crossing the Mexican border illegally with their children in the Rio Grande Valley, to better track them. If so, we commend this practice and hope that it will be used more widespread this coming year.

 

U.S. economy

We strongly believe that immigrants could contribute to our country’s finances if more were allowed to legally hold jobs. If our nation’s guest worker program was expanded to allow more immigrants to participate, then they could help to financially bolster our country by paying taxes.

 

The Center for American Progress estimates, for example, that the additional number of immigrants eligible for guest worker visas announced last month by President Obama will raise an additional $3 billion in payroll taxes in the first year alone as workers and employers get on the books and begin paying taxes. They estimate in five years it will raise $22.6 billion in payroll taxes.

 

Population projections also estimate that these immigrants, if allowed, could help fill jobs for our retiring Baby Boomer population.

 

Studies show that a larger proportion of immigrants are filling jobs than their American counterparts. Therefore we urge Congress to quickly expand and make permanent an aggressive guest worker program for those who pose no security or criminal threat and who can help fill needed jobs.

 

Texas, which had an estimated 1.65 million unauthorized immigrants in 2012, continues to be a model state for drawing and growing industries. Republicans and Democrats, alike, are known to brag about how much our state attracts businesses and is an engine for job growth.

 

Therefore we urge state lawmakers to consider how much immigrants contribute to our economy and to these jobs and industries. A 2005 study by the state’s comptroller — the first and only of its kind — estimated, at the time, that if the state’s 1.4 million undocumented immigrants were forced to leave that it would cause a loss of 298,000 jobs and $17.7 billion in gross regional product loss.

 

We urge state leaders to commission a more recent such study and for national leaders to study these figures, as well as figures of other states, to better recognize the actual financial gains that immigrants contribute to our country.

 

The 2005 report acknowledged that immigrants cost local governments about $1.44 billion in uncompensated healthcare costs and local law enforcement costs not paid for by the state. Therefore, we also urge that all immigrants who are allowed to legally work here must also be required to have healthcare insurance coverage. And those immigrants who have been in this country illegally for several years must pay back taxes before they can obtain legal status.

 

Looking forward

We recognize that permanently reforming immigration is a delicate balancing act that we look to lawmakers in Washington ultimately to resolve. But as we have found in studying immigration reform proposals, lawmakers are actually closer in agreement on several issues than all the negative rhetoric from Washington would have one believe.

 

This includes:

>> Improving border security efforts.

 

>> Humanely treating and judiciously processing through our court system those who have come here illegally.

 

>> Immediate deportation of those who pose a national security threat.

 

>> And establishing a matrix system for tracking those who are illegally here.

 

We believe that if lawmakers look at this issue from an economic standpoint and realize how our country could benefit from immigrants, through an aggressive and thoroughly screened guest worker program, that they perhaps would dispose of the harsh rhetoric and see this issue for how it can help the future of our nation, as well as those seeking refuge and a better life within our U.S. borders.

 

We continue to support the heroic efforts of our Border Patrol and those enforcing current laws. We commend the selfless humanitarian acts by so many here in the Rio Grande Valley to help these immigrants. Together, we know we can forge a solution. But we must have the will and the courage to acknowledge how immigrants have contributed to our great nation in the past. We truly believe in our leaders and hope they will give this the utmost importance in 2015.

 

 The Monitor’s Editorial Board

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