EL PASO, Texas – The Texas Border Coalition, which represents communities from El Paso to Brownsville, has published a white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management.

TBC hopes the white paper “will spur a robust national debate that results in bipartisan, incremental reform of the U.S. immigration system during the lame duck session of Congress.”

A section in the white paper gives recommendations on border management. This section is published below.

Recommendations on Border Management

There have been many inflection points involving the U.S. government’s management of its border with Mexico over the past 50-plus years. Some are well-known: the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act and the transformation of borders and immigration following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some are not as familiar, such as the technological transformation of the border management environment, which have improved the government’s ability to interdict illegal activities and foster more efficient travel and tourism.

Now, border management is not just boots on the ground and desert and river patrols. As land ports reflect increased numbers of local crossers and truck and rail movement, and authorities meet increased numbers of migrants, the country’s view of these management issues must broaden to meet current realities.

Prior to the 1965 Act, the back-and-forth flow of Mexican and Latin-Americans across the Texas-Mexico border was largely unrestricted. Most migrants worked seasonally and returned home. The new law restricted Mexican migration for the first time, erasing hundreds of thousands of Mexican guest worker authorizations and an unlimited number of resident visas – creating the first so-called “illegal aliens,” although none of the formerly legal Mexican workers did anything to change their protected status. The demand for Mexican workers, especially in the U.S. agriculture sector, was not changed by the law either. Instead of ending Mexican migration, the law forced it outside the law.

However, much of the U.S. government looked the other way, accepting the migration of Mexican workers because strict enforcement would have produced severe economic results, especially in the agricultural sector. In fact, Congress and President Ronald Reagan enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 seeking to align the law more accurately to economic and social reality, legalizing millions of unauthorized immigrants.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the American public and border enforcement agencies shifted their view of border enforcement. What had previously been seen as a public nuisance centered in border regions, strategies changed to emphasize counterterrorism. What was an ebb and flow of traffic across the border, both at and in-between ports, mostly in response to economic forces of supply and demand, stopped as the government implemented new security measures, and U.S.-Mexico border sister cities in Mexico became distant cousins amid the enforcement regime, including a border wall and local militarization.

Noting that some of these measures would be ineffective, the Texas Border Coalition advocated for a more common-sense approach involving reform of the immigration structure, increased manpower and greater reliance on technology. Rather than a physical wall, TBC argued for reliance on the Rio Grande River by removing Carrizo Cane vegetation on the river’s shores, giving Border Patrol agents greater situation awareness, and improving their ability to interdict river crossers. In the past few years, Congress has invested millions of dollars in Carrizo Cane removal, improving sightlines and improving awareness.

Recently released data show dramatic improvements in border management by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that may be a new inflection point. CBP’s has vastly increased its estimated apprehension rate of unauthorized border crossers from 35 percent in 2002–2004 to 78 percent in 2018–2020. Despite the overwhelmingly negative media coverage of border issues, the estimated number of entries without inspection are far below the levels observed in the early 2000s.

TBC also advocated for big increases in Customs agent staffing and technology at the land ports of entry, where most illegal drugs are smuggled into the U.S. CBP has installed new, extremely effective non-invasive inspection systems, such as multi- energy portals, to enable agents to see inside cars and trucks to detect illegal and banned goods. The technology, combined with more Customs inspectors trained to the equipment, is contributing to significant drug busts where it had been deployed. As the equipment is installed in more land ports of entry, the interdiction of drug smuggling will skyrocket. The technology has already contributed to CBP seizing more than four times the amount of fentanyl seized in 2019, from 2,800 pounds in 2019 to almost 13,000 pounds in the first 11 months of fiscal 2022.

These successes can only be capitalized upon if Congress continues to expand funding for critical personnel and programs and begins reforming dysfunctional immigration laws to create the opportunity for officials to finish the job of securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Overall border management strategies, including enforcement, are only likely to achieve the kind of success desired by the American people in an immigration policy environment reflecting economic and social reality. Combined with the kind of funding required to maintain momentum interdicting human and drug smuggling, bipartisan immigration proposals are needed to remove the disorder and improve Texas border security both at the land ports of entry and between them.

In recent years, more and more individuals and families have been surrendering themselves to CBP officers in hopes of qualifying to stay in the U.S. by seeking asylum status, based on credible fear of harm in their countries. They are not “illegal” unless credible fear is not established, in which case the migrant is removed. This increase in asylum applications has led to a boost in the number of CBP “encounters” but not illegal immigration.

Under U.S. law, if a migrant enters the country, surrenders to an enforcement official and requests asylum, he or she is entitled to a hearing on the claim. Over the last several years, the bulk of migrants entering the U.S. have come from the Central American northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The primary reasons for their migration to the U.S. are to reunite with members already established in the U.S., perceptions of amnesty (largely driven by misinformation), fear of violence and/or persecution in their home country, and better economic opportunities in the U.S.

Many of these Central American migrants are women and children. The fact that U.S. courts have ruled against the detaining of family units means there is no real detention, removal, or prosecution of these individuals. Family units are released with a “notice to appear” at a future court hearing. Because the U.S. was not prepared for the increase in the number of asylum applicants, the legal system for reviewing their claims has not been able to keep pace. Over the past decade, the number of pending claims has risen from just under 300,000 to nearly 2 million. The delay between a hearing being scheduled and finally heard has nearly doubled to two years. To help address the backlog, the Biden Administration proposed a more than $500 million appropriation increase, but the House recommended funding only about half the boost. When compared to the billions invested security operations, the Administration’s request seems both needed and prudent and TBC supports the full funding of the Biden Administration request.

TBC has advocated for additional immigration judges to begin clearing the case backlog and Congress has answered with several hundred new judges. The new judges have rapidly increased case completions: during this fiscal year, closures should be more than 400,000, nearly tripling the number in the previous fiscal year. We have also argued for a rule change, implemented on May 31, to speed up asylum decisions at the southern border. As the rule is implemented, we are hopeful it will continue to speed up asylum adjudication.

Despite these successes, Congress remains mired in decades of failure to reform our immigration laws to refocus migration on legal methods committing to following our asylum laws. Overall, we must appropriately fund this part of the system so that we have security that is based both on law enforcement and an immigration system sufficient to meet economic and social reality. The U.S. needs about 600,000 to 650,000 low-skilled workers, few of which we create internally, every year to keep our economy growing. There is a statutory limit of 66,000 visas per fiscal year for temporary nonagricultural workers. We must have immigrants to meet our workforce needs as well as to grow our communities.

To bring greater order to border management, it is essential that Congress begin to break the impasse that prevents legislative action. Although TBC has backed comprehensive measures in the past, combining immigration and border management provisions, we now believe an incremental approach, beginning with initiatives that already enjoy broad bipartisan support, is a better path. There are a handful of measures pending in the U.S. Senate, that should see final action during the Lame Duck congressional session following the 2022 mid-term elections.

In previous white papers, we advocated for incremental action on bipartisan immigration reform measures. Here we suggest the time is right for action on a handful of border management bills that can help build confidence for more robust legislation in 2023 and beyond.

The two main bipartisan border management proposals are the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act and the Securing America’s Ports of Entry Act. The Bipartisan Border Solutions Act would establish at least four new regional processing centers in high-traffic Border Patrol sectors; disincentivize migrants with unrealistic asylum claims from coming to the U.S.; give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and CBP additional resources to help them do their jobs – including additional ICE Enforcement and Removal staff, CBP officers, and processing coordinators.

The proposal would also speed up processing to address wait times and backlogs at land ports of entry, deter illegal migration while efficiently processing legitimate asylum claims, all while protecting children and allocating resources to local governments and non-governmental organizations at the border.

The bipartisan Securing America’s Ports of Entry Act would fully staff America’s airports, seaports, and land ports of entry; improve screening of vehicles and cargo entering the United States to 90 percent of commercial vehicles; and allow CBP officers to focus their efforts on law enforcement priorities while supporting lawful international commerce.

There are additional security actions Congress and the President can take that would improve our management of the border, such as the Safe Zones Act that would create asylum processing centers, one on the border of Guatemala and three along the U.S- Mexico border to provide asylum seekers alternatives to making the dangerous trek to our southern border and the Homeland Security Improvement Act that would strengthen oversight and accountability measures at DHS by creating an Ombudsman for Border and Immigration Enforcement.

There are other projects that would widen the Rio Grande River, adding to its deterrent power, including the Cameron County Weir Dam project in Brownsville and the Webb County Dam in Laredo. In addition to providing improved border security, the projects would expand water supply, a critical development for border communities. Another project would complete State Highway 1472, providing an essential link between Eagle Pass and Laredo, where no road along the Rio Grande River exists today.

Meanwhile, it is essential that Congress continue to fund the Emergency Food and Shelter program operated by DHS to assure that local governments and non- governmental organizations can carry on programs to address the needs of migrants entering the U.S. Texas border communities are thriving, safe cities and counties that see solutions to national problems involving immigration and border management that reside on our front doorsteps. It is our misfortune that too many of our national leaders have looked at these challenges and have seen partisan political opportunities instead of the bipartisan solutions they can be. Our is not an open border problem but a nascent success story that needs to be built upon to achieve our local, state, and national goals.

The Texas Border Coalition is at the ready to join with any all who are interested in seeking solutions that unite us instead of problems to divide us.

About the Texas Border Coalition

The Texas Border Coalition (TBC) is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect nearly 2.8 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville. TBC is working closely with the state and federal government to educate, advocate, and secure funding for transportation, immigration and ports of entry, workforce and education and health care. For more information, visit the coalition website at www.texasbordercoaltion.org.

Editor’s Note: The above commentary is the fourth in a four-part series documenting a Texas Border Coalition white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management. Part One focuses on the history of the Texas-Mexico border region. Click here to read it. Part Two focuses on Economic & Social Reality on the Texas-Mexico Border. Click here to read it. Part Three, focuses on immigration reform recommendations. Click here to read it. 

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