False rhetoric won’t fix real immigration problems • Ohio Capital Journal

False rhetoric won’t fix real immigration problems • Ohio Capital Journal

SUNLAND PARK, NEW MEXICO — For Robert Ardovino, the surge of migrants to the southern border has been a constant problem for a while now, and he’s hardly alone.

Ardovino’s Desert Crossing — his restaurant/bar/retro-RV resort — has to be one of the coolest spots in the Southwest. Just across the Texas line from El Paso, it sits at the foot of Mt. Christo Rey, which separates the United States from Mexico, and from its elegant dining room, patrons look out across almost-limitless desert vistas.

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s 2021 marijuana legalization makes tiny Sunland Park the spot closest to any big Texas city where people can get legal weed. In January, the New York Times referred to it as “Little Amsterdam.”

But over the past few years, uninvited guests have been showing up. Lots of them.

During a Saturday afternoon conversation in late March, Ardovino leaned on an outdoor bathtub next to a 1957 Spartan Royal Manor travel trailer he rents out through Airbnb. As he spoke, dark figures popped up repeatedly on the mountain ridge behind him while a Border Patrol helicopter chopped and a surveillance plane droned overhead. 

Ardovino said the people popping up were spotters checking to see if the coast was clear to send migrants over the border and down the mountain to smugglers, or “coyotes” who were waiting — often in Ardovino’s parking lot, and sometimes in his bar.

“The coyotes are the worst problem that I have,” Ardovino said, explaining that their presence made him worry for his patrons and his employees. “Because they, with those spotters, they’re telling the migrant group where to go and when to go. Everyone’s got cell phones, so they’re timing when and where to pick up. It’s all the time.”

Spotters for smugglers handling undocumented migrants in March looking to see if the coast is clear to send migrants from just outside Juarez into New Mexico, where smugglers, or “coyotes” are waiting. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)

Ardovino and many like him have been in the middle of the record-breaking surge to the border as COVID-era exclusions expired and migrants fled devastated economies and chaos in their home countries. But as politicians have rushed to paint the area as a lawless combat zone, he and others say those officials’ words and actions are doing little to help with the very real problems they’re experiencing on the ground, which have less to do with the migrants themselves than the smugglers trafficking them across the border.

Problems and politics

After reaching a record-setting peak of about 300,000 in December, U.S. Border Patrol encounters with migrants near the Mexican border have dropped to under 200,000 a month — lower than they were at this time in 2022 and 2023. But border crossings are still historically high and the government institutions constituted to deal with the arrival of undocumented migrants are overwhelmed.

While the border-enforcement budget was almost 19 times bigger in 2023 as it was in 1990, funding for asylum courts and other services for undocumented migrants has lagged. At the end of December, the backlog in immigration court rose above 3 million, with each judge facing a caseload of 4,500. That leaves asylum seekers in the United States waiting 4.3 years on average to have their cases heard.

As migrants have streamed in, agencies tasked with housing and feeding them have struggled to keep up. But the response in some states appears to be more about domestic politics than it is about dealing with the problem.

Texas, for example, is putting its police and state Guard between migrants and federal authorities despite the well-established principle that immigration enforcement is a function reserved for the federal government. It’s doing so on the specious legal claim that what’s happening along its border amounts to a military “invasion.” 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has conducted press events at the border hosting former President Donald Trump and attacking President Joe Biden. And Abbott has ordered the placement of miles of razor wire and buoys in the Rio Grande with nets attached below and serrated blades connecting them. Critics say the entire point is to injure or kill migrants.

Inflicting pain

Whether the measures are discouraging migrants from coming is unclear. But what is clear is that they’re increasing the body count at the border, said Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso resident who represented the city in Congress and on city council.

“Six years ago in the El Paso Border Patrol Sector — which includes West Texas, El Paso and all of southern New Mexico — six migrants died,” he said in March. “Last year, 149 migrants died. They’re women and children drowning. They’re dying of dehydration and exposure, they’re getting caught up in the concertina wire. They’re showing up at our hospitals with massive lacerations.”

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The federal government has sued Texas, arguing that a state governor doesn’t have the authority to place barriers along the border or in a navigable waterway, and Abbott has contested that assertion. His stance is reminiscent of his tenure as state attorney general during the Obama administration. That’s when he famously said I go to the office. I sue the federal government. Then I go home.”

Perhaps also supporting the notion that Abbott’s border moves are primarily dictated by politics is the fact that he’s packed thousands of migrants on buses and sent them off to Democratic-voting cities, including into the depth of a Chicago winter — without alerting authorities so they could prepare, and without providing migrants from the tropics with hats and gloves. 

He has said Texas’ resources to deal with migrants have been overwhelmed. 

On a March morning in El Paso, officials with the Texas Division of Emergency Management loaded 50 or so migrants onto buses in the parking lot of the Union Depot, referring all questions to headquarters in Austin. Asked where the migrants were taken, a spokesperson there didn’t respond. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)

Real problems

Meanwhile, Ardovino, whose restaurant/resort borders Texas and Mexico, is improvising as he deals with dozens of migrants being smuggled across that part of the border daily.

He described how earlier in March, he got a call from a manager saying that two suspected smugglers were at the bar, seemingly waiting. Ardovino called the Border Patrol and had to navigate an intramural dispute between field officers who wanted to respond and office personnel who didn’t.

For his part, Ardovino wanted officers to come, but he wanted them to stay out of his restaurant for fear of a confrontation inside. 

Eight migrants approached the coyotes’ truck in the parking lot and a few jumped in. They scattered when Border Patrol officers came and towed the truck, while the suspected smugglers looked on, firmly planted on their barstools.

“I thought, ‘Now they’re never leaving,’” Ardovino said, describing the entire drama as “a strange little s— show.”

Eventually, the officers entered a tense bar and arrested the suspected smugglers.

“This is the third time this has happened in the last eight months,” Ardovino said, describing the increasingly threatening behavior of the smugglers. “They were kids at first. Then they were people with paper plates on their cars. Now they’re stolen cars. Now they’re getting a lot more aggressive.” 

Instead of making life harder for migrants — as Texas authorities are — Ardovino said law enforcement should focus like a laser on their smugglers.

“The people who are preying on the migrants are the worst of the worst,” he said. “We should immediately arrest them and make their lives incredibly difficult.”

Working relationship

More than 400 miles away in another border town — Del Rio, Texas — another businessman has also been dealing with the surge in migrants since it started. Like Ardovino, Rakesh Kapur, owner of the Whispering Palms Inn, says claims that masses of migrants are coming to the states to commit crime and go on welfare are false.

Some migrants have committed horrific crimes. But research shows undocumented persons commit violent crime at substantially lower rates than those who are native born — and they’re prohibited by law from receiving most forms of federal assistance. 

Kapur said claims that the migratory surge amounts to an “invasion” are bunk.

“It’s desperation,” he said. “They come here and ask, ‘Can we clean the pool?’ They want to work. They don’t want to live off the government. Back in California where I lived a long time people would get someone’s name and Social Security card so they could work. They were paying taxes, but they were not able to file tax returns.”

Migration is a topic Kapur knows intimately. 

His family is originally from the part of India that is now Pakistan. His great-grandfather migrated to Kenya. Kapur was born there, educated in England, started a business, and then moved to the United States and at one point owned several hotels.

“My great-grandfather might have been a slave,” Kapur said. “But when we came to Africa, we got into business, were self-sufficient, we grew the economy there and our family was very well-off.”

Kapur and his family are not alone. In fact, immigrants are substantially overrepresented in the ranks of American entrepreneurs.

The Harvard Business Review in 2021 reported that while 13.7% of the workforce was foreign born, immigrants made up 20.2% of the self-employed workforce and were responsible for 25% of startups. Even more striking, immigrants to the United States founded or cofounded 55% of the nation’s billion-dollar companies.

Kapur scoffed at the idea that the vast majority of migrants who made their way through the terrors of the Darien Gap, and braved the gangs of the Northern Triangle and Mexico to come here for a life of crime.

“These guys are so terrified and so scared,” said. “After what they’ve experienced, do you think they’re going to come and rob the place?”

Instead, Kapur agreed with Ardovino that migrants are coming to fill some of the 8.5 million vacant jobs in the United States.

“The Republicans want fodder — ‘We’ll have to take care of them,’ they say,” Ardovino said. “Well, then, let them work. They came here for that.”

Realistic solutions

Cesar Blanco’s state Senate district extends down the Rio Grande from El Paso and into the Big Bend region. It also runs hundreds of miles due east into the mountainous ranch country of West Texas. 

In an interview last month, he said ranchers in his district have been harmed in the migration surge primarily by smuggler “coyotes” driving onto their land, damaging crops, knocking down fences and letting cattle loose only to die on the roadside. Such damages might sound pedestrian, but Blanco said some suffered by constituents ran upward of $100,000 and big portions often weren’t covered by insurance.

The Texas ranch country outside Marfa, where ranchers say human smugglers are damaging their crops, livestock and fences. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)

Blanco said he co-sponsored a bill creating a fund to help ranchers with uninsured damages, but there’s only so much the state can do.

“The only entity that can fix the issue of immigration and border security is Congress,” he said. “They have refused to do it up to this point. They need to do comprehensive, humanitarian immigration reform so we can get people who are fleeing to a safe country and on a path to citizenship.”

A bipartisan compromise was reached early this year in the U.S. Senate that would have beefed up resources for immigration courts and asylum seekers, provided new equipment to detect drugs like fentanyl and added Border Patrol personnel. However, it died when Trump said he didn’t want to give the Democrats anything that could be seen as a political win for Biden

As in 2013, bipartisan action on immigration was sacrificed to political considerations — and this time, Trump bluntly said so.

To offer a way forward, the National Immigration Forum last month unveiled its Border Security & Management Framework. Many of its elements were also part of the bipartisan bill that died at Trump’s behest, but its architects are pushing forward.

“As advocates, lots of us have done a really good job convincing Americans and lawmakers that the immigration system is broken,” said Kristie De Peña, of the Niskanen Center, a think tank that advocates against polarization. “This is an effort to convince them that it’s also fixable.”

One of the fixes proposed in the framework is updating the law and federal processes to deal with the human smuggling that Ardovino complained of so bitterly. 

The framework also proposes augmenting resources, cutting wait times and being more precise about who is eligible for asylum in the United States. And, importantly, it calls for the creation of new pathways for immigrants to come here and work.

Ardovino evoked the Darien Gap, the lawless stretch of mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama that undocumented migrants coming from South America must pass through. Survivors of the ordeal routinely report seeing corpses and rapes — and they often make the journey with their children in tow.

Ardovino called on the political class to drop the false, scary bombast and do something to help.

“I absolutely think the rhetoric is not helping at all,” he said. “This is a problem. We all know it’s a problem. Let’s get down to how we fix it. These people don’t want to make the journey through the Darien Gap. Who the f–k wants to go through the Darien Gap?”