Listen to this story:
NEW YORK – With policy changes at the U.S.-Mexico border on the horizon, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso acknowledged on April 24 that there remains uncertainty around what will happen, but a “significant” migration surge is likely, and help is welcome.
“We’re about to perhaps face a significant surge in people coming across the border,” said Seitz, referring to May 11 when Title 42 will end. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen then, but we’d love to have some reinforcements because we’re running shelters and we depend on volunteers for that.”
Seitz made the comments at a dialogue hosted by the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, where panelists analyzed the nation’s migration crisis.
Seitz, who is also chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, says the heart of the problem is the view that the problem is the border itself, as opposed to the border being viewed as a symptom of why people are arriving there in the first place.
He likened treating immigration as a border problem to treating cancer with aspirin.
“It doesn’t fix things to control the border, but what we need to do is not simply think about immigrants as a problem and a threat, we need to think about why they are coming,” Seitz said. “Trust that underlying the situations are almost exclusively violence and its threats, and the instability caused by that violence and its economic problems caused by that instability.”
“Immigration will not be fixed by simply stopping people or sending them back,” Seitz continued. “Immigration issues will be allowed to become a more orderly, normal human process if we deal with the root causes of them in the sending countries. And if we in this country begin to see immigrants as not a threat, but rather as people who are in need, who deserve our assistance because of their human struggle.”
Through the two-plus years of Biden administration, it has largely taken a deterrent approach to migration, utilizing policies like Title 42 – a controversial Trump-era measure that allows the immediate expulsion of immigrants. The result has been record migration at the southern border.
Last Fiscal Year, from Oct. 1, 2021 – Sept. 20, 2022, border agents encountered a record-high 2.4 million undocumented migrants. Through the first six months of FY 2023, border agents encountered migrants at an even higher rate, with more than 1.5 million encounters.
Seitz and others have also lamented the approach the Biden administration has elected to take once Title 42 ends. One aspect of the plan that will go into effect is a proposed two-year rule that will presume immigrants are ineligible for asylum if they enter the country unlawfully. It would allow for the rapid deportation of any immigrants who fail to utilize a legal pathway to enter the U.S., or who don’t seek asylum or other protection in a country through which they traveled.
The policy is another step further away from what President Joe Biden campaigned on, which was a more humane immigration system different from that under President Donald Trump.
Andrea Flores, chief counsel to Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who worked on immigration policy in both the Biden and Obama administrations, said the direction the Biden administration has taken on immigration “very disappointing.” The proposed transit rule in particular, she said, is “very extreme.”
“An asylum ban is seen as a shift to the middle on immigration … this is a very extreme step that the U.S. is taking that is going to inspire other countries to do similar asylum bans,” Flores said.
Flores put the onus on leaders of both parties for why the nation’s immigration system has become what it has, noting that the conversation is too focused on the numbers at the border.
“Our solutions are to the high border numbers that you see. Our solutions are not about any of the individualized reasons why people are coming to our borders,” Flores said. “It’s something I’d like to see more of from leaders on both sides.”
Camilo Montoya-Galvez, an immigration reporter with CBS News, noted that part of the problem is the distance between the priorities of political leaders in each party. Democrats, he said, are focused on helping the migrants who have been in the U.S. for years. Meanwhile, Republicans are focused on tougher policies at the border, and limiting asylum.
“Both parties are unwilling, or unable, in many cases to make hard and tough concessions,” he said.
There are problems for migrants in the U.S., as well. Particularly with the asylum processing backlog. Data from TRAC Immigration, an online database run by Syracuse University that tracks the asylum processing backlog, shows that as of March 2023 the average days’ wait until a migrant gets an asylum hearing in immigration court is 1,525, or about four years.
To take it a step further, Beatriz Ortiz, an immigration staff attorney at Ayuda – a non-profit that facilitates the provision of direct legal, social and language services to immigrants – said that it sometimes takes her nine months after an application is filed to get a receipt from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ortiz said, adding that the delay often impacts migrants’ ability to get renewals on employment authorizations. “You have people that have the ability to work legally in the United States, and they are losing their jobs, and they are losing the ability to support themselves.”
In closing remarks, Seitz said there’s one simple thing that all people can do to change the conversation around migration in the U.S.: Meet an immigrant.
“If you want to be strengthened and hope, meet an immigrant because they will show you just how grace can work in a person’s life,” Seitz said. “From a non-faith perspective you’ll find it in them, incredible faith.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg