McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators and congressmen from border states on Thursday proposed legislation called the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act,” which they say will help to more quickly and safely process the influx of migrants on the Southwest border, and help to reduce the backlog of U.S. immigration cases.
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, and Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, proposed the legislation in the Senate, which they are touting as a solution to the ongoing “crisis” on the border with Mexico.
Companion legislation was filed in the House of Representatives on Thursday by Texas Congressmen Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, and Tony Gonzales, a Republican whose border district spans from El Paso to San Antonio.
If passed by Congress, the legislation would authorize the opening of four regional processing facilities to help facilitate and sort the thousands of incoming asylum-seekers who are crossing the border each day. They said this would free up U.S. Border Patrol agents to better patrol the frontlines, and not be detained processing migrant paperwork.
“With the Border Patrol estimating that this situation will only get worse, we must address this in a meaningful way that is fair to migrants seeking asylum, takes the pressure off of our border communities, and allows our Border Patrol agents to focus on their primary mission of securing the border,” Cornyn said.
The centers would be located in “high-traffic Border Patrol sectors,” but the exact locations are unclear.
Lawmakers stressed during a virtual call with media on Thursday that they hope the facilities are located on the border.
The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, and Del Rio, Texas, in the Big Bend area were among places mentioned, but the lawmakers said nothing at this point is set in stone.
The cost for opening such facilities also was not revealed. But Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said the costs to U.S. taxpayers would be less than what the federal government is currently paying to house unaccompanied migrant minors, which is about $800 per day.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported as of Tuesday it was caring for 20,544 unaccompanied migrant minors. An additional 620 migrant youth were apprehended by Border Patrol and placed into the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on Tuesday. The total number of youth in CBP custody as of Tuesday was 2,718.
At a cost of $800 per day, HHS is paying over $16 million per day to house, care and feed the migrant youth.
During the news conference, Cuellar said that Mexico is looking to set up children’s shelters in the southern part of its country, but the lawmakers said that every day that migrant youth and families stream across the border it is costing money and taking away from border resources.
“People need help now. We need relief today,” Gonzales said.
“I’ve seen firsthand how Arizona, and specifically small communities along the border, pay the price for the federal government’s failure to fix our broken immigration system,” Sinema said in a statement.
Sinema chairs the Border Management Subcommittee and she said this bipartisan, bicameral legislation would ensure “the federal government takes meaningful steps to support our border communities, secure the border, and treat all migrants and unaccompanied children fairly and humanely.”
(This bill ensures) the federal government takes meaningful steps to support our border communities, secure the border, and treat all migrants and unaccompanied children fairly and humanely.”U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ
The bill proposes creating a pilot program “to facilitate fairer and more efficient credible fear determinations and asylum decisions,” according to a news release. It also would:
- Set a prioritized docket of migrant immigration court cases.
- Expand legal orientation programs and translation services to help counsel migrants.
- Set new protections for unaccompanied migrant children to be released to U.S. sponsors to ensure their safety.
- Increase staffing to include 300 asylum officers, more Immigration customs and Enforcement staff, CBP officers, and Border Patrol processing coordinators.
- Coordinate between DHS officials and non-governmental organizations and local municipalities to prevent the release of migrants into small communities not equipped to handle an influx.
- Improve the reporting of information to Congress on the migrant influx from the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and HHS.
- Add 150 teams of new U.S. immigration judges.
Cuellar said these new immigration judges should be located on the border.
“We got to get those judges on the border. It’s been difficult,” said Cuellar, who has for years proposed legislation that has raised the amount of funding and number of U.S. immigration judges, but he said the judges have not been sent to border communities.
“They move judges to cities where people are released and I think that’s backwards. What we have to do is put them at the border,” said Cuellar whose hometown is the South Texas border city of Laredo.
“We’re trying to give folks a fair process before an immigration judge,” Cuellar said. “We want to allow them their day in court.”
It is unclear, however, how the processing would work and when and where the migrants would be given credible fear interviews during which time they can assert their asylum claims. It also is unclear what would happen to those whose claims are rejected and whether they would immediately be deported.
“The current influx of migrants has stretched our law enforcement agents and border communities to a breaking point,” Gonzales said. “To restore order, Congress must enact commonsense measures that relieve the bottlenecks in our immigration system and allow our DHS agents to focus on their national security responsibilities. We must take steps towards creating an immigration system that allows people to safely and legally come to the United States.”
Cornyn said the bill expands upon the HUMANE Act (Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency Act), which he and Cuellar proposed in July 2014 at the start of the immigration influx into South Texas.
Cuellar called the latest act a “common-sense solution” that would “comprehensively address the current surge of irregular migration.”
The lawmakers said it also would help to thwart the Mexican drug cartels that are making millions of dollars profiting from human trafficking.
Some migrant-advocates praised the bill, but admitted getting bipartisan, bicameral support will be tough.
Said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum: “This is a positive step that bodes well for the chances for immigration reforms this year. We commend Sens. Cornyn and Sinema for working across party lines to introduce a bill that addresses current challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The introduction of this solutions-focused bill is critical, and we believe it furthers the conversation around much-needed reforms,” Noorani said.