Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A refugee toddler looks at his mother as they arrive at Casa Alitas shelter at the Benedictine Sanctuary in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Feb 9.

A dramatic surge in the number of unauthorized migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border makes it necessary for firm and immediate action to address a problem that transcends the political debate over how best to secure the border against future illegal crossings.

It is now a humanitarian crisis that demands an aggressive response — one that’s not held hostage (by either side) to the political back-and-forth on funding for a border wall. The nation’s immediate focus should be on the plight of those already at the border, and how the present situation has taken the system “to the breaking point,” as the head of the Customs and Border Protection agency reports.

More than 200,000 undocumented migrants have been detained so far this year. A record number of 50,000 are in physical custody. An unknown number have been released into the country while awaiting a hearing, which could take months or longer. While the judicial components of the system are overwhelmed and incapable of processing applications for asylum or entry under any reasonable time frame, there are insufficient facilities to house the migrants stopped at the border and to address their medical needs.

The result is largely one of the country’s own making. The inability over decades to fashion a comprehensive immigration policy has left the U.S. with a hodgepodge of inconsistent and often conflicting regulations, without the allocation of sufficient resources to enforce them. Much of this is the result of the political inability to agree on whether policy should follow a hard line of deterrence or a more compassionate model. As a result, America has neither.

In the past, most illegal entries were by single men seeking work, who could be detained and quickly deported. Now, there are large numbers of families fleeing violence and poverty who arrive at the border seeking asylum. The law demands the U.S. address those claims, which now takes months or more. Agents, under the law, cannot detain families for more than 20 days, meaning they are often released.

As a result, private entities pick up the slack. A coalition of churches formed along the southern border in Arizona, for instance, welcomes migrants with temporary legal status who can no longer stay in ICE facilities, as Deseret News reporter Tad Walch recently documented. These charitable groups provide immeasurable good, but they, too, are limited by finite resources. Congress should prioritize similar efforts and ensure migrants don’t fall into a humanitarian gap.

16 comments on this story

Despite the surge, levels of illegal immigration are not close to historic highs. But the levels of families — and children — have increased. For those currently at our border, and for the official entities charged with addressing their needs and their status, there is a serious contemporary problem the country can’t look away from without ignoring its better nature.

We have long favored a compassionate, legal and orderly approach to migration based on the historic reality that the nation in aggregate has seen far more benefit than harm from immigration. Now, lawmakers should set aside the politics of border security and help the country’s own agencies better do their jobs.