Don’t Let the Humanitarian Crisis at the Border Excuse Congressional Inaction on Immigration

As members of Congress watch thousands of asylum seekers, many of them children, risk their lives to enter the United States each day, it would be tempting to argue that essential immigration reforms must wait until the crisis at the border is resolved. This is not an unreasonable thought. There is no doubt that the increase in migrants seeking entry into the U.S., particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children, poses real and immediate challenges that must be addressed. I believe, however, that if Congress does not pass meaningful immigration reforms this year, we will continue to face similar border surges regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House.

Republicans who support immigration reform efforts, like Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), are watching the events on the border and acknowledging the challenges ahead.

“Immigration is always a difficult issue,” Newhouse recently told Time. “And the crisis at the border certainly is not helping on the timing of any bill that has to do with anything in our immigration system.”

This is true. And policymakers should be mindful of conflating a humanitarian challenge at the border with a national security crisis. For too long, meaningful immigration reforms have failed, in part because of the false premise that immigration threatens U.S. national security. ​In reality, immigration reform done right can reinforce our national security and economic interests and allow us to regain our footing as a global humanitarian leader.

Now is the time for Congress to face this issue head on and enact bipartisan legislation to address the underlying factors that create challenges at the border year after year. Immigration reforms, including​smart border-security technology, creating pathways for legal immigration and improving the processing of those seeking humanitarian relief, will ease longstanding problems related to our southern border, in a way that reinforces our national security and our nation’s values. The status quo – a dysfunctional and out-of-date immigration system — is not sustainable and will only lead to ever escalating​ challenges at the border, just like the challenges we faced during the prior two presidential administrations.

​​Border security and the vetting of noncitizens entering the United States is critical to the safety and security of the American people. Congress should embrace innovative and effective border security and screening methods using the latest technologies with bipartisan support, like using a “smart wall” and deploying mobile screening equipment for vehicles entering the United States.

Nor should we underestimate how essential immigrants are — to our security and to our recovery from a global pandemic. Roughly 40,000 noncitizens serve in our armed forces, more than 1 million immigrants provide health care and more than 2 million immigrants are part of America’s food supply chain. Many of these workers have only temporary status; some, especially in agriculture, are undocumented. Legislation that provides a secure future for them will mean a more secure future for all Americans.

It is also imperative that America’s immigration laws reflect our values. ​The world once looked to the United States as a nation of freedom and opportunity, particularly for those fleeing danger. Re-establishing our refugee and asylum admissions systems, with proper vetting, is essential to maintaining our national and humanitarian interests, raising America’s global stature and returning to our longstanding values.

​​​We are too often presented with a false choice between security and compassion. Congress can — and should — pass immigration policies that address the humanitarian crisis at the border in the short term and increase security in the longer term by emphasizing legal, orderly immigration pathways.

This will take political will and persistence. The past three presidents tried to push significant immigration reform agendas but failed to reach the finish line. President Joe Biden and this Congress must avoid that fate and press forward with determination to enact bipartisan immigration legislation that will strengthen our security, our economy and our nation.


James M. Loy, a founding member of the Council on National Security and Immigration, is a retired admiral and former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who later served under Bush as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.

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