The real emergency at the border is going unnoticed
Exactly one month ago, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border in order to bypass Congress and unlock billions in military funding to start construction on his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The action was necessary, according to the president, in order to “control our own border.”
“So we’re going to be signing today, and registering, national emergency and it’s a great thing to do,” President Trump said last month in the White House Rose Garden. “Because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people and it’s unacceptable.”
“It’s very simple,” he added. “We want to stop drugs from coming into our country. We want to stop criminals and gangs from coming into our country.”
The president and members of his administration, like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, followed suit, co-opting the president’s language.
“Illegal immigration is spiraling out of control and threatening public safety and national security,” Nielsen told members of the House Homeland Security Committee at a hearing last week.
“This is not a manufactured crisis,” Nielsen said. “This is truly an emergency.”
National security experts, however, disagree. A bipartisan group of 58 ex-national security officials penned a letter to Republican members of Congress, urging them to block the emergency declaration.
“Under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the president to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border,” wrote the group, which includes former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) echoed that sentiment in a statement to ThinkProgress, calling the national emergency declaration “anti-immigrant theatre.”
“[…] the Administration has willfully ignored real issues at the border and even created new ones,” Thompson added. “This president and his administration must immediately turn their focus to the real issues at hand and reverse these harmful policies they’ve enacted.”
Most members of Congress also disagree with the president. Last month, shortly after the president’s emergency declaration, House Democrats introduced and subsequently passed a resolution to block the president from raiding Department of Defense funds for a wall. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) spearheaded the resolution, writing: “The President is declaring an emergency over a crisis that does not exist. This unfounded declaration would take money away from actual, identified national security needs.”
And on Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution blocking Trump’s emergency declaration, with the support of 12 Republicans voting against the president. Although Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) promised last month in a flashy op-ed in The Washington Post that he would vote for the resolution, he ultimately voted against it after consulting with the administration.
Both Nielsen and Trump have pointed to the drug crisis as the core justification for the wall, describing the amount of drugs that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seizes. But a wall would not have stopped last week’s 3,200 pound cocaine seizure at the Port of New York, which was the agency’s largest seizure in 25 years. It also would not have stopped the 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine that were hidden in a produce truck that passed legally through an official port of entry.
As ThinkProgress previously noted, “Cocaine seizures on U.S. borders…regularly measure in tons, making it impractical to have individual migrants ferry it across. Instead, dealers prefer to smuggle drugs into the country via legal ports of entry, which allow them to bring in high-value substances that are more easily hidden.”
Data on the number of border crossing apprehensions released by the CBP in February provided much fodder and more wall justification for the president and his supporters, as it demonstrated a significant spike in the number of people crossing the border between ports of entry. The data shows that 66,450 people were apprehended after crossing the border between ports of entry, compared to 47,986 the previous month. This “spike” is still much lower than the number of border crossings in the early 2000s, which has decreased from approximately 1.6 million to just 310,000 in 2017.
The February CBP data also includes the 10,000 immigrants deemed “inadmissible,” which means they attempted to enter the country legally or requested humanitarian protection. In other words, they attempted to follow the law.
This is the real crisis at the border: that asylum seekers and other immigrants who follow U.S. laws are being wrongly persecuted.
Seeking asylum in the United States is completely legal whether or not an asylee crosses the border between ports of entry. U.S. asylum law states that any person “physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.”
The Trump administration’s policy of “metering” asylum applications at the border — only letting in only a small number of migrants in each day — has created confusion and months-long waiting periods at ports of entry, despite the fact that denying individuals the right to apply for asylum is a violation of international human rights law. The extensive backup at ports of entry has caused desperate Central American families to cross between ports of entry instead, which has contributed to the spike in “illegal” border crossings.
At two ports of entry, the administration has implemented its “Migrant Protection Protocols” policy. Also known as “Remain in Mexico,” the policy requires asylum seekers to make their claims in the United States and wait out their cases in deteriorating shelters in the Mexican cities of Juarez or Tijuana — places unsafe for anyone, but especially for Central American migrants. A 2017 report from Human Rights First found Mexico to be a hostile environment for migrants where they are targeted for their vulnerable status. Nielsen has signaled she wants to expand the policy to the entire border, greatly reducing the number of asylum seekers.
“There is a real emergency in Central America which is driving people to come to the United States,” Scott Shuchart, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former DHS official told ThinkProgress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
“I think as far as our domestic situation, there is also an emergency of the administration trying to run an immigration policy of seeing what they can run away with before getting enjoined. I think the fact that they’ve tried to illegally ban asylum and have turned people back at the bridges shows there is just a complete disregard for what the law says,” Shuchart added.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson.