On Dec. 3, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced their disappointment in the Biden administration’s decision to comply with a court order to reinstate former President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” The program required those crossing the southern border to make an asylum claim to remain in Mexico while their claim is processed.
“We are deeply dismayed by the reimplementation of MPP,” said Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, in a press release. “Unfortunately, attempts by the Administration to make this program ‘more humane’—however well intentioned—will not cure its inherent faults, nor will they alleviate its inevitable toll on human lives.”
But the initial reason for this protocol was that there were clear abuses of the process, with many using the initial claim of asylum as a way to enter, with no intention of following the process through to its end. Trump’s acting secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, testified at a June 2019 U.S. Senate hearing that out of 7,000 asylum seekers in one particular program, about 90% of them simply did not show up for their hearings.
There’s an old political maxim that governing is about trade-offs, not silver bullets. This is because the problems of the world are so intertwined that a “perfect” solution in one area is almost guaranteed to make something in another area worse. The virtue of prudence requires we consider the same complex calculations in our decision making. With that in mind, the border is certainly an area where solutions should not only consider a single variable, precisely because so many groups are affected by any changes in policy. Sadly, it often seems that the USCCB does not always not take into consideration variables beyond the needs of those who have legitimate asylum claims.
For example, consider that at about the same time the USCCB made their statement on MPP, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced that November of 2021 had 173,600 border apprehensions along the southern border, the most for that month in the nation’s history. And there have been headlines like this all year, such as a recent one from CNN stating, “A dramatic increase in number of migrants seeking asylum in Arizona overwhelms Border Patrol,” or days earlier from Border Report saying, “More migrants from Venezuela crossed into U.S. in October than in all of 2020.”
And it’s not just the huddled masses yearning to be free. Cartels are once again capitalizing on this chaos with increased child sex trafficking, gun running, and drug running. For example, Texas said in April of this year they’ve seen an 800% increase in fentanyl seized along their border over last year — a year in which fentanyl drove the record 100,000 U.S. overdose deaths. More fentanyl—6,500 pounds—was seized by April of 2021 than had been in the entirety of 2020 under Pres. Trump’s “less humane” border policies. Fentanyl seized has doubled over the entire year due to the Mexican cartels ramping up production and smuggling. This has led to an interstate compact, with National Guard forces from multiple states banding together to police the border since the federal agents are not being allowed to do their job.
Many people who apply for asylum are indeed legitimate asylum seekers, or refugees, which under U.S. law means they left their home “country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Many more, though, are economic migrants, who, while coming from difficult and even tragic circumstances in their home countries, do not qualify for asylum status.
In order to get a handle on the chaotic border situation, incentives like an asylum process that is easily gamed need to be removed. This is the sort of “loophole” that gets spread by word of mouth once it’s successful for a few people, leading quickly to many more people walking towards the border. And these caravans, such as the 15,000 Haitians that ended up living under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, live in conditions much less humane than any of the MPP facilities.
The USCCB is right in insisting that we should have great sympathy for those who are economically distressed, oppressed by their governments, threatened by gang violence, and otherwise suffering. The fact is, however, that only certain of these people qualify under U.S. law to enter the country—and erasing the rule of law hurts many more than it helps.
An immigration policy that is not much more complicated than a welcome mat may seem compassionate, but it is a dangerous trade-off. We are trading compassion to migrants for neglect towards children caught up in sex trafficking, or towards the next fentayl-overdose victim, or towards those killed by cartel-linked drug gangs. Seeing these issues as interconnected, not as ones that can each be solved separately, is essential if our compassion for the suffering are going to lead to far better results.
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