What they mean when they say ‘immigration problem’

Photo: Carrie Braes

A day after President Trump issued an executive order to stop separating families caught crossing the southern border, members of Congress are scrambling to figure out what to do with subsequent families who make the journey to the United States. Lawmakers paint different pictures of what the problem actually is and who the victims are. And that’s true even within Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation.

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Trump’s order will continue the “zero tolerance” arrests for border crossers, with the intention that children would be detained with their parents. Sen. Dan Sullivan said it’s good to end the family separations, but the order doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

“The president’s executive order gives a pause and I think brought relief to people who are concerned about the issue,” Sullivan said. “But who knows how long that’s going to last because it’s going to be litigated.”

A 1997 legal settlement says children can’t be detained for more than 20 days, even with their parents. Sullivan said lawsuits will make it hard to hold families longer.

“Or if (the limit of) 20 days hits, do you just say, ‘OK you’re allowed to go free into the country, even though we haven’t adjudicated your status’?” Sullivan said.  “That’s the whole issue of ‘catch and release.'”

Sullivan is concerned about people walking away from their immigration proceedings and taking up illegal residence in the U.S. And he sees a problem with people using children, even trafficking children, to game the system.

“And the last thing we want to be doing,” Sullivan said, “is send a signal that ‘hey, if you show up in the United States with a child, somehow you’re going to get a free pass into the country after 20 days.'”

Sullivan is co-sponsoring two bills that would provide more family shelters and add immigration judges to expedite court cases and asylum claims.

The current family separation crisis began this spring, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed the new “zero tolerance” policy. But as Alaska Congressman Don Young sees it, the real problem is decades old, due to Congress not passing a good immigration law.

“Because people don’t want to solve the problem. It’s a political issue,” Young said. “It’s politics and politics is nasty nowadays days, and they’re using the children as a pawn, and that’s wrong.”

And Young, like Trump, says the people at fault are the Democrats. As for the solution, Young wants a wall — but on Mexico’s southern border.

“If you build a wall in Mexico down there where the bottleneck is, that’d be a pretty short wall. I’d even pay for it,” Young said. “And then we have chance to check them out before they go through to Mexico.”

Young said a compromise immigration bill in the House won’t solve the problem, but is better than nothing.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, when discussing the border problem, focuses on families from Central America who have legitimate asylum claims. She said some have tried to present their claims at official crossing points but have been turned away because the lines are long and there aren’t enough U.S. staff to accept their paperwork.

“And so what are those people supposed to do?” Murkowski said. “You’ve come from a place where you live in fear. You’ve probably got very little financial assets to get you to return. Are you going to walk back 2,000 miles? That’s not going to happen.”

Murkowski said people may cross the border illegally because they have no other way to contact U.S. officials and apply for asylum.

She’s working with a group that includes Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on a bipartisan bill.

Unlike a lot of her colleagues, Murkowski doesn’t focus on adults who may be exploiting children to better their chances of gaining access to the country.

“I don’t mention them because I don’t know to what degree it’s happening,” Murkowski said. She added that she is concerned children could be exploited to gain entry to the United States. “I am not so naive as to believe there are not some bad actors out there.”

But Murkowski said there are families with valid asylum claims and she doesn’t want to punish the many for the crimes of a few.