Over the last month, I have traveled in three congressional delegations to El Paso and southern New Mexico. We heard from federal law enforcement, toured detention centers and Border Patrol stations, and listened to human rights and legal advocates who have worked with migrants for decades.
Some of us even saw where Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8-year-old Guatemalan who recently died while in custody, and his father were apprehended.
Obviously, El Paso and its metropolitan area, including Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico, is just one point along a very long border. But everything we saw demonstrated why President Trump’s call for a wall is simplistic and misguided. While there is indeed a crisis on the border, it’s not the one the president describes — and, in fact, his “solution” will only make things worse.
The border runs for 2,000 miles. Some of it runs through impassable terrain, some alongside cities like El Paso. About 700 miles of it already has a wall. In other words, the border may look like one long, thin line on a map, but in reality it is much more complicated.
Nor are those arriving at the border the threatening mass of humanity Mr. Trump imagines. For one thing, there are a lot fewer people being apprehended — down 60 percent from a decade ago. And these days the majority are seeking asylum, their legal right. And while drugs do flow across the border, most of them come through ports of entry.
It’s not just Mr. Trump who fails to appreciate these facts; as I’ve come to learn as an El Paso an and now a member of Congress, so does the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite receiving more money than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, the department has not adapted to changes in migrating populations and patterns. Before giving it another penny, Congress must understand why.
Instead of developing a nuanced response to the facts on the ground, this administration has chosen incompetence and cruelty as its approach. The consequences are already apparent.
For example, one reason more migrants are coming across the border through the desert, then requesting asylum, may be that they are being unfairly rejected at official border crossings or being forced to languish in Mexico while their applications are being considered at a deliberately slow pace, a tactic called “metering.” Many choose not to wait, and make a desperate, risky choice — and some die as a result.
And because federal law enforcement agencies have failed to adapt to this changing population, agents are ill equipped to handle the asylum seekers once they do arrive.
Those agents are used to chasing after single Mexican men determined to evade capture. They are now dealing with Central American families, fleeing their countries and running to, not from, the agents. Some carry very small children; all are being crowded into small, inhumane cement cells for days at a time.
I am not blaming the agents. During one of our visits to an El Paso Sector station, agents were up front with us about how unprepared they were to care for the large groups of people they apprehended. They had to buy burritos from a vendor down the street, then warm hundreds of them in a single, small microwave that eventually burned out.
Then there was the mother who, in our presence, asked for a cup of water for her toddler, only to be told that the facility was out of cups. What a terrible situation for the mother, holding an exhausted, thirsty child in her arms. And what does that do to the agent who has to say no to her?
During flu season, agents in El Paso had to dispense medication to their charges. Imagine keeping track of dozens of prescriptions intended to be dispensed every few hours. And all of this was keeping agents from what they were trained to do: track and apprehend bad guys.
When I ask agents what they worry about most, I hear stories like this — not pleas for a wall. Other times they ask for better cellphone coverage and updated radios to use in rural areas. In urban areas with busy ports of entry, they ask for more personnel and newer equipment. There aren’t enough immigration judges, they don’t have enough independence, and the laws on the books don’t reflect modern realities.
The agents may not be to blame, but the agencies sure are. Local immigration activists said their main concern was inadequate communication from federal law enforcement, which left their organizations scrambling when the local Immigration Customs Enforcement office releases hundreds of migrants in need of temporary housing into the nighttime streets of El Paso.
When we talk about a crisis along the border, this is what it looks like: desperate families overwhelming agents who get little direction or support from their local offices, let alone Washington.
This year, Congress needs to investigate the inability of a well-funded agency to adapt, why supervisors ignored the alarms raised by their agents on the ground, how two children (Felipe Gómez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin) died as a result, and how we best address the root causes of changed migration.
President Trump and his base won’t end their obsession with border security until there’s not a single undocumented crosser — an impossibility. For them, of course, this isn’t about border security; it’s about nationalism and isolationism. For the rest of us, it’s about finding a humane solution to a humanitarian challange.
Veronica Escobar is a Democratic representative from El Paso.