Democrats blame border breakdown on U.S. laws, not Biden

For Rep. Jamaal Bowman, there is no border crisis — at least not in the way much of the country sees the record numbers of illegal immigrants being detected trying to enter without authorization.

“The vast majority of immigrants coming here, the migrants coming here, are seeking asylum and running away from horrific, dangerous circumstances,” said Mr. Bowman, New York Democrat. “We support a human rights approach to immigration reform.”

Besides, he told The Washington Times, the U.S. shares “culpability” in shaping the misery those folks are fleeing.

“You know, we have been there for decades, farming, mining, disrupting local ecosystems. We haven’t kicked back into the economy enough so there’s no education systems, there’s no real economic development or strength,” he said. “So people are in desperate circumstances. At the same time, we fund many of these military and police officers out there and they don’t just uphold the law, but they target and harass people who are being pushed out from their homes.”

Perhaps no issue divides the two parties right now more than immigration and the state of the southern border, where record numbers of illegal immigrants are being encountered trying to enter the country.

More than 6 million unauthorized migrants have tried to enter since January 2021, with the vast majority of those trying to sneak in across the southwestern border. The pace has slackened in the last couple of weeks, though Border Patrol agents say they expect it will pick up soon.

Republicans look at the situation and say it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s intentional — particularly given the precipitous change in 2021.

Democrats bristle at that notion.

“Please show me one thing where Democrats have said ‘Yes, we want more illegal immigration.’ It’s not something people are wanting,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, Florida Democrat.

He told The Times that the border situation is “a byproduct of the system that we have and the reality of the world.”

“The question we ask is, what do we do about it? Do we criminalize or do we work through the lens of humanity and ensure that we help people through the promise of this country with immigration,” he said.

Rep. Andre Carson, Indiana Democrat, echoed that sentiment.

“Those who want to frame it as that Democrats are for porous and open borders, I think that’s an erroneous talking point, and an outdated one,” he told The Times. “I think we want a security mechanism that’s in place where families are protected, families aren’t separated, and U.S. citizens still benefit.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat and a former chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said the reason for the surge is that U.S. law hasn’t kept up with the demands of migration.

“We’ve screwed this up big time,” she said. “We’re still operating under the basic outlines of the immigration bill crafted in 1965. It’s not a surprise that the bill outlined in 1965 doesn’t work for the United States very well in 2023.”

She said Democrats have offered fixes, “and every time the Republicans block it.”

The Biden administration itself has been conflicted on the border.

In early 2021, as the numbers rose, the president and his team insisted it was “seasonal” and would dissipate. Then, when the numbers didn’t fall, his team reversed course and said the problem had been going on for years, and was due to global forces the U.S. alone can’t tame.

In fact, said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, other countries have it much worse than the U.S. 

Democrats also argue there is a tinge of xenophobia to the complaints about the large numbers of people jumping the border.

“The Republicans continue to push an agenda that focuses on building walls and, you know, crisis at the border because too many people are coming in — that’s just ‘great replacement’ theory talk. That is not humanity, democracy talk,” Mr. Bowman said.

“For me, it all goes back to human rights,” he said. “If people are being persecuted, that means harmed, jailed, imprisoned, maybe even killed because of how they identify, and because of their religious beliefs, you are allowed to seek asylum based on that. If you are seeking asylum because of extreme poverty, you are allowed to seek asylum based on that as well. So, you know, again, we are a nation of immigrants.”

He’s partly right.

Those fleeing actual government persecution do have an asylum case. But poverty — even extreme poverty — is not considered a valid reason for asylum.

Indeed, the majority of illegal immigrants who show up at the southern border aren’t even taking the first step toward claiming asylum by making a claim of “credible fear” of being sent home.

According to pre-pandemic data, only about 40% of illegal immigrants nabbed at the border were making credible fear claims. And of those that do make claims, the rate of success in actually winning asylum is less than one in five.

That means few of those jumping the border right now will likely be deemed legitimate asylum cases.

But the image of asylum-seekers is a rhetorical safe harbor for many Democrats. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams religiously refers to the thousands of migrants overwhelming his city services as asylum-seekers. So did former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The difference in approaches between the two parties is so extreme that members of the House won’t travel to the border in bipartisan groups anymore.

When the Judiciary Committee held a field hearing in Yuma, Arizona, in February, Democrats boycotted. Some Democratic members made their own trip a month later, seeking different voices to highlight.

There are some exceptions.

Sen. Mark Kelley, an Arizona Democrat seeking re-election last year, took pains to be seen pressing Homeland Security to complete some sections of President Trump’s border wall in his state. Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat, took a trip to the border to cut a video of herself demanding more attention to the situation.

And Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat, has worked on border security bills with Republicans.

But for many Democrats, the only way they’ll tackle border security is if it’s part of a broader bill legalizing illegal immigrants already here.

At a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, challenged Rodney Scott, a former chief of the Border Patrol, on that account. She asked him whether it didn’t make sense to wrap security and legalization together.

Mr. Scott wouldn’t bite. He said that based on his three decades in the Border Patrol “you have to be able to secure the border first or all the other conversations are irrelevant.”

Ms. Jackson Lee retorted: “You’re not going to get border security coming first.”

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