This editorial appeared Sunday in the Arizona Daily Star:
President Trump announced last week that he is sending the National Guard to the border. While many details remain unclear — such as how many troops and the length of their mission — what is apparent is that this is yet another ploy by the president to use the demonization of immigrants for partisan gain and troops as political props.
Spurred by his inability so far to fulfill his campaign promise of building a border wall, paid for by Mexico or by taxpayers, the president seems desperate to show that he is doing something, even if it’s about nothing.
Because no matter what the administration claims, there is no “crisis at our Southwest border.”
Apprehensions for fiscal year 2017 were 303,916. You must go back to the early 1970s to find anything lower, and more undocumented Mexican immigrants are leaving than crossing over illegally. There has been an increase in immigrants coming from Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — but their situation in many cases is decidedly different.
This group of migrants, many of them families or unaccompanied minors, are not trying to sneak in to the United States. They are seeking asylum and readily turn themselves in to law enforcement.
In his proclamation to send the Guard to the border, the president also notes the “large quantities of fentanyl, other opioids, and other dangerous and illicit drugs are flowing across our southern border.” But as reported in the Star, most hard drugs cross through the ports of entry. From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2016, more than 80 percent of these drugs — including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine — were stopped by customs officers, not the Border Patrol.
The administration seems confused. On Twitter, the president has railed against our “weak immigration laws,” while in a news release about deploying the National Guard, the Department of Homeland Security identified the problem of “legal loopholes, asylum fraud, a massive court backlog.”
None of that is solved by troops on the border. And if prior deployments are any indication, by President Bush in 2006-2008 and President Obama in 2010-2011, the rate of return on taxpayer investment is not worth the expense. According to Politifact, the operations had a combined cost of $1.35 billion, resulting in 204,701 apprehensions aided by the National Guard.
The Guard is limited in what it can do, since it cannot be used for domestic law enforcement under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. In previous actions along the border it has provided a support role only, helping with intelligence, surveillance, maintenance and logistics.
Even under those limitations, Presidents Bush and Obama had more compelling reasons to order the deployments. More than 1 million people were being arrested at the border when President Bush launched Operation Jump Start, while Operation Phalanx under Obama came at a time when cartel violence reached unprecedented heights in Mexico.
Barring comprehensive immigration reform, if the president truly wants to address in a just manner the issues he has raised, he can start with the following:
• Increase the number of immigration judges. There is an immigration court backlog of more than 680,000 cases and rising. This will not be solved with an arbitrary quota system like the one recently imposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but by hiring qualified, fair judges who can discern when an immigrant should stay or be deported.
• Provide attorneys for people seeking asylum. Because immigration violations are a civil, not criminal matter, the accused is not guaranteed an attorney. This is a travesty, as asylum law is complicated and immigrants with credible cases are left to their own devices and the mercy of the system.
• Increase funding for more officers and improvements at the ports of entry. The Office of Field Operations, the customs officers at the ports of entry, are often neglected whenever the specter of border security is invoked. Yet they are the front line of defense against hard drugs and are responsible for both security and economic concerns as they handle the smooth flow of trade and people.
The presence of National Guard troops on our border is unnecessary and unwarranted. One would hope that our representatives would stand up for the truth, yet so far Gov. Doug Ducey and Rep. Martha McSally have welcomed the deployment. Instead of selling tickets to more political theater, they should continue to push for comprehensive immigration reform that would fully address the country’s economic needs, safety concerns and humanitarian responsibilities.
Immigration needs real solutions, not half-baked measures borne of frustration.