Immigration should be about more than politics

Whichever side of the spectrum you’re on, the topic of immigration has never been more political than it is today. I know because I had to speak in public about the migration crisis recently, and it was a real challenge to decide whether to speak about the disappointment and heartbreak in my heart or whether I should try to be more impartial to avoid offending people.

I work at a nonprofit by the name of Refugee Congress in San Diego, 20 minutes from the U.S. southern border. We help immigrants and refugees get access to services. Unfortunately, since recent changes in asylum law took effect, fewer people have been coming to my office seeking assistance. That’s not to say that there aren’t people coming to the U.S. seeking safety. They are. It more likely means people have lost trust in the system to take care of them and they are now seeking help underground. I worry that this creates more opportunities for exploitation by traffickers as seen by what happened to 41 migrants who are still missing after a recent kidnapping in Mexico. People are in real danger when they undertake these trips, and would not risk it if their lives were not at stake.

The challenge right now is that political strategy seems to be getting in the way of actually helping people. We need to do more to educate each other about why people would flee their homelands to come to the United States. And we need to remember that seeking asylum happens because people are in danger. Yet instead, we have reached the point where everybody seems to be thinking about the next election while people suffer in the ensuing confusion.

Congress has failed for more than a decade to pass meaningful immigration reform, and the resulting hash of band-aid “solutions” leaves many in shaky and unsafe circumstances. It increases the sense of worry and concern for vulnerable migrants as well as the danger they face in coming to America.

Last month, the Biden administration replaced a temporary order called Title 42 that was put in place by the Trump administration. Title 42 was a discriminatory and unnecessary policy that was put in place under the guise of a “temporary public health” measure to prevent the coronavirus from entering the U.S. But, was in actuality a de facto way of turning people away. People seeking safety were turned away without consideration of their claims.

According to U.S. and international law, individuals arriving in the U.S. can request asylum at our border. These individuals undergo a screening process to evaluate if they have a legitimate fear of persecution in their home country. Following this, their cases are directed to the immigration court system to decide if they can remain in the U.S., a process that may take years. Typically, they are allowed to stay in the U.S. while their cases are pending.

Now we have a new policy that has resulted in the U.S. deporting 11,000 migrants in the week after Title 42 ended. The Biden administration had recently begun denying asylum to those who did not initially seek protection in a country they passed through or if they did not apply online first. The Biden administration has also started to offer a phone app to help migrants by allowing them to secure appointments to enter the U.S. at border ports of entry. The goal is for them to be able to seek asylum in a more orderly fashion. However, in my experience, most migrants don’t have smartphones. For unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, it is even more difficult to follow the new rules. Because of stronger consequences for illegal entry, border crossings have also plummeted. But the administration should not be proud of this. It just means that they turned away people who should have been able to legally seek safety and instead left them in harm’s way.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of those behind the new policies given how difficult it is to do anything definitive when it comes to our immigration policy. I myself came here from Peru when my life was in danger and I filed for asylum. I know how important asylum is and I would like for our nation to be bolder in asserting ourselves as a beacon of fairness and humanity for people.

CARMEN KCOMT left her life as a judge in Peru when she was in danger. She has worked for the United Nations and is a Refugee Congress honorary delegate. She lives in San Diego.