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After leading trip to southern border, Central Washington’s Dan Newhouse says immigration reform can’t wait

Rep. Dan Newhouse, center, R-Sunnyside, leads a delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona on Feb. 8.  (Courtesy of Rep. Dan Newhouse)

WASHINGTON – In a video recorded on Feb. 8, Rep. Dan Newhouse stood in front of a 20-foot-tall fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and gave his assessment of a crisis that is dominating American politics.

The Central Washington lawmaker was leading a group of a dozen Republicans from the Congressional Western Caucus, a group he chairs that includes representatives from mostly rural districts across the United States and its territories. In contrast to the bombast that pervades the debate over immigration and border security at the Capitol and on the campaign trail, he explained soberly that the wall behind him was built under the Obama administration and is an important tool for border enforcement.

“This whole issue can be pretty theoretical when you’re sitting in an office in Washington, D.C.,” Newhouse said to the camera. “But I think people really need to see for themselves, and I wish more members of Congress would come.”

The situation at the southern border, where Border Patrol agents encountered a record of nearly 250,000 people crossing illegally in December, has captured the attention of lawmakers and defined the presumptive rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. After Senate negotiators proposed a bipartisan border security bill on Feb. 4, a revolt by Trump allies in the GOP sank the deal before it could reach the House, with some Republicans saying they would rather campaign on the crisis than solve it.

But in a phone call from the Tucson airport before he flew home to his farm in Sunnyside, Newhouse said fixing the nation’s outdated, overwhelmed immigration and border system can’t wait.

“I just don’t think we should go to our respective corners and stomp our feet and yell because we aren’t getting our way,” he said. “We’d be asking these communities down here to just put up with what they’re dealing with for another year, because we don’t want to do it right now. That’s unconscionable. It’s inexcusable. I just think we have a responsibility to do what we can to bring improvements to the system.”

When lawmakers returned to the House last week, Newhouse and nearly all Republicans voted Tuesday to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a symbolic yet virtually unprecedented move intended to express the GOP’s disapproval of the Biden administration’s handling of the border.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of House members unveiled their own border security proposal, which would restrict migrants’ ability to seek asylum and reinstate a Trump-era policy that required them to remain in Mexico while awaiting court hearings in the United States. That bill is likely to face resistance from progressive Democrats and GOP hardliners, making its fate unclear.

Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said it’s important to put the recent surge in migrants crossing the border in context.

Violence, hunger and limited opportunities for work have driven higher levels of migration and displacement around the world. Criminal organizations have taken advantage of the demand for migrating to the U.S.-Mexico border, creating a sophisticated and lucrative human-smuggling infrastructure. Finally, access to social media has supercharged the spread of information – not all of it accurate – about getting to the United States.

As a result, Putzel-Kavanaugh said, the situation at the border is completely different from three decades ago, the last time Congress made major updates to U.S. border and immigration laws. Then, most people who crossed the border illegally were single men seeking to work, who tried to evade Border Patrol agents and get into the country undetected.

“Now, we have people coming in large numbers who cross onto U.S. territory and wait for Border Patrol to come and apprehend them and process them,” she said. “And so it’s created this complete flip in the system and in the resources that are needed and in what’s happening on the ground. And our laws and our systems just aren’t built for this new reality.”

In fiscal year 2023, for the first time most migrants who crossed the border illegally did not come from Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to Customs and Border Protection data, 51% came from other countries with Venezuela accounting for the biggest share along with Columbia, Ecuador, China, India and other nations.

A massive backlog in the nation’s immigration courts means migrants who claim asylum are typically released and wait years before their day in court. As a result, Putzel-Kavanaugh said a record number of people are in a “liminal” status, living in the United States for years without clear legal status, not knowing if or when they will be forced to leave.

“The human aspect of this is just horrendous, what people go through,” said Newhouse, a longtime advocate of bipartisan immigration reform bills that have failed to gain support among most Republicans.

“The desperation to get into our country is real. Most of them are just coming to try to make a better life for themselves and their families. And to the cartels, they’re just a commodity. They don’t care about whether they live or die. They just want their money.”

Republicans say Biden has the authority he needs to “shut down” the border, but Trump’s efforts to stop border crossings were repeatedly challenged and sometimes overturned by federal courts. At the end of the Trump administration and beginning of the Biden administration, asylum was severely restricted by a pandemic-era public health order known as Title 42, but that expired in May 2023.

While Trump and his allies in Congress claim Biden could do more to “shut down” the border, in reality the U.S. government doesn’t control how many migrants cross the border illegally, only what happens after they do. According to data released by the House Judiciary Committee in October, the Department of Homeland Security released a higher percentage of arrested migrants into the United States under Trump than it did during the first two years of Biden’s presidency.

David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, was involved in the last major push for immigration reform in 2013, as an aide to then-Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho. He said the political environment makes the prospect of immigration reform so hard that he believes the only option is for Biden to use his limited ability to act without Congress.

“In some ways, we felt like we were close then,” Bier said of the 2013 effort, which fell short amid GOP opposition in the House. “But we still didn’t get it done despite bipartisan agreement in the Senate, much lower temperature on the issue, much more support from major conservative media. The politics now are just so poisoned.”

What Biden should do, Bier argued, is use his existing authority to allow more migrants to enter the country legally with the help of sponsors, as the president has already done for Cubans, Ukrainians, Haitians and Nicaraguans. That move sharply reduced the number of migrants from those countries who cross the border illegally. Bier said doing the same for other countries could undercut the cartels that profit from smuggling people across the border, while helping overwhelmed Border Patrol agents.

“If you deal with that, it dries up so much of the smuggling pipeline,” he said. “If there’s very few people being smuggled from Central America through Mexico, then that whole system just gets gutted of all of its infrastructure.”

A similar approach for Venezuela hasn’t been as effective, Bier said, because demand for the program far exceeds the number of Venezuelans who can enter the United States legally.

Newhouse said he is open to that approach, although he emphasized that Customs and Border Protection still would need more funding to process even a much smaller number of migrants at the border.

“If you took away the commodity they deal in – the people – yeah, that would make a lot of sense,” Newhouse said of the Mexican cartels that control smuggling operations.

While Newhouse acknowledged that the political climate makes immigration and border reform harder, he said the country can’t afford to wait. He said he believes the 11 Republicans who traveled with him to Arizona – including Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who chairs the hard-right Freedom Caucus – feel the same way.

“The people on this trip, when they saw firsthand what’s going on here, I didn’t hear anybody say that we should just wait until the next election,” Newhouse said.