by Rachel Bovard
After refusing for weeks to negotiate over border security “until the government is open,” the bluff has been called on congressional Democrats.
Congress has until February 15 to craft a border security package ahead of what could be yet another partial government shutdown. Talks among the 17 lawmakers appointed to the committee assigned with drafting a proposal have begun, though details remain scarce. Top Democrat Representative Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told reporters that “everything is on the table.” President Trump has said that the conference committee is wasting its time if it’s not considering a wall.
For those claiming that the recent 35-day shutdown resulted in no substantive achievement, the conference committee may well represent the one opportunity for substantive immigration reform from this Congress—and perhaps for the next decade. It is critically important that Congress get it right.
A border wall must be a critical component of the package—and for evidence of why it’s necessary, look no further than stunning videos taken by Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas). The freshman member of Congress visited just one unsecured sector of the border in McAllen, Texas, and watched as truckloads of migrants casually strolled into the United States.
McAllen is in the Rio Grande Valley sector, approximately 100 miles of which are the epicenter of a stunning 37 percent of the country’s illegal immigration. As Roy has pointed out, it’s also where Mexican cartels have de facto control of the border, exploiting migrants—particularly young women and girls—for sex and drug trafficking.
For anyone who bothers actually to visit the border, it’s obvious that physical barriers are necessary. (And if, like intrepid CNN reporter Jim Acosta, you visit sections of the border that already have walls, you unwittingly prove how well they work.)
But there’s a whole lot more in this negotiation that Congress needs to get right. Here are three in particular.
Fix the Family Separation Policy
Nearly every Democrat has denounced the Trump Administration for enforcing the law on family separation—while simultaneously blocking efforts to fix it. Under the terms of a 1997 consent decree, unaccompanied children may only be detained by the U.S. government for 20 days. At that point, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) must release the child on his own, or release the child along with his entire family.
Asylum claims, which require longer processing—and therefore longer detention—are the complicating factor. At this point, the government is forced to separate families, sending the children to live elsewhere with relatives or foster families, while the adults wait out an asylum claim.
It’s not difficult to see how this system is critically flawed. Not only does it incentivize families to bring their children on dangerous journeys, it has dramatically increased instances of fraud—something even the New York Times admits.
Senate Republicans repeatedly have attempted to fix the issue, only to be blocked by Senate Democrats, leading the usually mild-mannered Republican Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) to speculate on the Senate floor that Democrats actually preferred “the drama of tearing families apart” because it “looks so much better on TV.”
If Democrats actually want to solve this problem rather than continue to posture about it, they will address it in this proposal.
Close Asylum Loopholes
Our current immigration laws allow a person here illegally to claim he has a “credible fear” of being tortured or prosecuted if he returns to his country. The illegal alien is then taken before an immigration judge, with an opportunity to prove this claim.
The issue, however, comes with interpretation of what constitutes “credible fear.” As I’ve written before,the number of “credible fear” cases under the Obama Administration more than octupled. There are only a handful of reasons for this. Either the world got 16 times more dangerous, Citizenship and Immigration Services became more lenient in assessing “credible fear,” or migrants have become more savvy in knowing what to say to meet the threshold.
Either way, “credible fear” now apparently has a much more fluid definition and that is incentivizing more illegal immigration than it’s stopping. Closing this loophole—or at least giving it more statutory clarity—is critical to ensuring that our asylum laws are used for those who actually need them.
Implement a Merit-Based Immigration System
The reform proposals put forward by House Republicans in 2018 were a mixed bag—but did hit on the idea of implementing a merit, points-based green card program.
Under the terms of the proposal, this category of applicants for green cards would earn points for skills, education, vocational training, work experience, English language proficiency, and U.S. military service. Green cards would be expedited for those earning higher points.
Merit-based immigration long has been a talking point among immigration reform proponents but has yet to get substantial traction. It’s a concept, however, worth continuing to test, particularly as recent pollingshows most voters now want a merit-based immigration system as opposed to a family-based one.
It goes without saying that there are many other policy areas that should be on the table—eliminating the diversity visa lottery (which Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is on record supporting), cracking down on sanctuary cities, and more funding for new border agents and additional judges, among many others.
But if this conference is to be anything more than rhetorical, Republicans and Democrats need to begin addressing some of the fundamental areas that have bedeviled our immigration system for decades. Trump may not have his wall—yet—but he has successfully dragged both parties, albeit kicking and screaming, to the negotiating table on an issue that both parties would prefer to keep avoiding.
It would be a shame if they let him, and the voters, down again.
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Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters.