Solutions 2024 — fixing the border

by Martin Schram

So this guy walks into a bar. He sits down next to me and pretty soon he’s telling me the story of how he got here.

He came as a stowaway. He was just a kid. His dad decided the family could sneak across the border and into the United States — and build a grand new life. He hid in a bathroom with his mom, dad and five older sisters when the train stopped at the border. U.S. border checkers came down the aisle checking everyone’s documents. But they had none. So they hid and hoped. The officers walked right past their bathroom. Soon the train started rolling again.

Undocumented but undetected, the stowaway family crossed the border. And that boy became the famously proud, patriotic American who was telling me his story at the bar.

He was Abe Rosenthal, a legend at The New York Times. You won’t find that story in his official New York Times bio or obituary. But after we rode some presidential candidate’s campaign bus, Abe met me in that bar and told me his real story, long ago. He was born in Canada in 1922 to a Byelorussian farmer and his wife who’d immigrated in the 1890s.

Once in the United States, the Rosenthals settled in the Bronx. Abe was hired by The Times in 1943, won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, became the Times’ executive editor, then was a columnist. Yet, perhaps Abe’s proudest moment came after eight years at the Times — when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

I found myself recalling Abe’s northern border story this past week while listening to Donald Trump and his Republican acolytes recycling their doomsday warnings that southern border surges by criminal and venal immigrants would be the ruination of our nation. But policy makers must never lose sight of the fact that, while smugglers prey, many desperate migrants may still represent the best hope for our country’s future.

Abe’s tale may appeal to Joe Biden. When he was a freshman senator, Biden and I occasionally met to talk about foul-ups at the White Houses I was covering. Biden was good at grasping how presidents and staffs mucked up their best chances for success. Today, I hope he’s finally grasped the fact that his White House, Homeland Security and State Departments apparently failed to act with urgency and perception to reverse the surge at our border that is fed by gangs of smugglers who prey upon desperate Central and South Americans.

In a couple of columns last year, I urged solutions that the Biden administration could have adopted to ease the repeated southern border surge crises. The administration indeed has announced programs that adopted the principles I suggested. But they were done without the urgency and intuitive message communication strategy needed to convince the migrants not to walk those hundreds of miles — thinking that if they are caught at the border they’ll be allowed to stay.

Most believe if they are caught entering illegally, this can be their best hope of being allowed to stay.

I have urged the establishment of regional visa and asylum processing centers far from the border — such as in Guatemala. And while the administration announced that plan, it hasn’t completed it, nor incentivized the desperate migrants with a convincing program.

So let’s boldly label these facilities: “EXPRESS VISA PROCESSING CENTERS.” Let’s vastly increase the U.S. government personnel who will rapidly process all visas that are applied for at these centers. Perhaps tent facilities can be arranged for those who must wait weeks.

Let the U.S. announce repeatedly that processing time at the border will be much slower than at these “express” facilities. Let’s have them use a fleet of boldly colored, red-white-and-blue “STARS & STRIPES EXPRESS” buses that will transport thousands of those who are approved for asylum, or work or student visas across the U.S. border. Then let the immigrants be transferred to other similar buses that will take them to destination cities arranged by the government.

Also: Latin America and the world must see proof in the form of repeated video news showing that illegal entry no longer works. Videos of immigrants who entered illegally being rounded up and transported back — or sent to new Express Visa Processing centers away from the border so they can have a chance to finally do it right.

One year ago, on Jan. 5, 2023, a White House fact sheet announced a series of “new border enforcement actions.” In April, Homeland Security announced “Sweeping New Actions to Manage Regional Migration.”

But desperate migrants saw nothing happen. And as 2023 ended, we all saw new record border surges.

What we have here, Mr. President, is a failure to innovate, a failure to communicate — and nobody seems sure who’s in charge.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email: martin.schram@gmail.com.