As President Trump has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government, his demand for a wall has diverted attention from the real challenges we face at our border, including the need to fix our broken immigration system.
Last weekend, I visited the U.S.-Mexico border to better understand border security measures and humanitarian issues there. What I saw was a complex situation that bore little relation to the inflammatory rhetoric of the White House.
We toured the border from urban El Paso to rural New Mexico. We met with Customs and Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security staff (both on and off the record), local officials, medical personnel, immigration advocates, and refugees. We inspected a legal port of entry, cargo X-ray machines, detention areas, and a volunteer-run migrant shelter. Agents showed us the tools they use to patrol our border, from horses and ATVs to trucks equipped with infrared cameras and radar.
Law enforcement officials overwhelmingly expressed the need for more funding: for people, infrastructure, roads, and technology. We saw miles of concrete, chain link, steel slat, and bollard fencing . But without exception, officials said that they need a mix of tools to secure the border. Several agents scoffed at the idea of a wall and repeated versions of, “if you build a 20-foot wall, they’ll bring a 21-foot ladder.”
CBP agents told us that most of the immigrants they encounter are families with children, seeking sanctuary from extreme poverty and violence in Central America — not sneaking into our country. Several agents shared stories of refugees walking up to their cars or offices and knocking on the window to request asylum.
We met Elana, a Guatemalan refugee, at a shelter with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters who are American citizens. Elana (whose name has been changed here to protect her safety) had returned to Guatemala for family reasons, but decided to return to the U.S. out of fear for her children’s safety. Under current law, she had two options: risking her daughters’ lives in Guatemala or returning to the U.S.
In October, Elana walked across the border with the girls and requested asylum. Despite the family separation policy supposedly ending last June, Elana was detained and her daughters were placed in foster care. No reason was given; Elana has no criminal record and has never been accused of child endangerment. After four months of heartache, she was released and reunited with the girls, a few hours before we met her.
We could see the toll the separation had taken on the family, in Elana’s face, her tears, and the way she and her 3-year-old clung to each other. Her 5-year-old was withdrawn and conflicted: She thought her mother had abandoned her and struggled with the attachment she formed to her foster family.
At our border, we did not find a national security emergency, but we did find a humanitarian crisis. We saw dozens of women and children in windowless holding cells, sleeping on benches and cement floors with no room to walk between their bodies, and no place for the children to play.
Law enforcement agents admitted that they struggle to do their jobs because they don’t have the facilities, personnel, or resources to process refugees. Our failure to address this humanitarian crisis, with diplomacy, foreign aid, and humane border policies has created a challenge for law enforcement officers. They worry about the bad guys they cannot catch when an officer has to “guard” a sick refugee child at the hospital. They need resources to address the facts, not a crisis dreamed up by those sowing racist division for political gain.
Our border security policy cannot be driven by tweets and campaign slogans — it must be driven by the facts as we work to fix our broken immigration system.
Mary Gay Scanlon represents Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.