At The Border, Migrant Crisis Tests Whether Politicians Can Translate Compassion Into Action


MCALLEN, TEXAS — Outside a sterile City Hall fringed by the town’s historical artifacts, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling walks at a brisk pace with his communications director leading five paces ahead of him. His face is marked with worry as it had been for just about every day for the past two months, if not longer. Darling had just come out from a roundtable discussion with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and border town mayors, and he looked concerned. Darling’s city, less than ten miles from the Mexican border, had become ground zero for the unaccompanied child migrant crisis and he had become the public face for a nation sharply divided not just on the semantics of calling these children “refugees” or “alien minors,” but also the best way to deal with these children. A lot like salesmen, Cornyn and Cuellar were at the roundtable with posters propped on easels and a Powerpoint presentation to pitch their latest proposal to send these children back to their countries as quickly as possible.

“No,” Darling told ThinkProgress as he stood exasperated outside City Hall, no, he didn’t believe that a 2012 presidential initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was responsible for the current crisis. Other politicians, including prominent Texas lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), blamed the program for directly causing children to come to the United States on the false promise of some form of “amnesty.” The DACA program grants temporary legal presence — the ability to live and work without perpetual fear of deportation — to some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

“I tell a lot of youth groups, and I just say it’s kind of like the Golden Rule,” Darling said. “We treat people like we want to be treated. We have tens of thousands of people coming across the river every day. Many of our families are first, second, and third generation Hispanics and so it’s extraordinary effort for people who are doing it.”

This year alone, Border Patrol agents are expecting to apprehend about 90,000 unaccompanied child migrants crossing the southern U.S. border. More than 57,000 have already been apprehended. The Rio Grande Valley, where Darling’s town is located, is at the center of this influx. At least 42,164 migrants have already been apprehended through the Rio Grande Valley border patrol stations.

Darling is something of a unicorn among border town mayors in the Valley — he wants children to have the ability to stay after receiving a fair judicial process. Other local and congressional lawmakers from the region are less flexible about allowing children to stay in the country. In the media and to their constituents, these lawmakers representing the border are purporting to be as concerned for the well-being of these new migrants. But the policies they support would send the migrants back to their countries of origin, in many cases with little opportunity for their claims to asylum to be heard.

Response Without Repair

Less than 30 feet from two longhouse-style emergency tents staked into the parking lot of a church-turned-emergency shelter in McAllen, Texas, three lawmakers insisted that migrant families should be deported as quickly as possible. On this particular day, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Reps. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), and Randy Weber (R-TX) had just finished up a morning tour of the church facility with television and radio personality Glenn Beck. He had earlier brought in teddy bears and hot meals to hungry migrant families who made the trek into the United States. Under the sweltering sun, Beck and Cruz had a chat away from media with Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities, who helped set up operations on church grounds. They were there to help with relief efforts, but at the same time, to pressure the Obama administration to fix the issue.

Just the week before, Cruz refused to support the President’s emergency funding request unless the Obama administration halted expanding DACA, the program that has given some undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children the chance to live and work here.

He told ThinkProgress that DACA was responsible for the sharp uptick of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. “I agree with the President that this is a humanitarian crisis and it’s a humanitarian crisis of his making,” Cruz said. “The only way to solve this problem is to remove the promise of amnesty. … What is humane is to have a compassionate, but expedited process for returning these children back home. That is what we do with Mexico and Canada. And we should do the same with these children so that we fix this problem.”

What Cruz means is deporting kids without going through the judicial process to assess their asylum claims. One proposed bill to do this — disingenuously dubbed the HUMANE Act — would have border agents decide which kids have claims of credible fear. This is currently how the U.S. treats migrants from Mexico under an agreement between the two countries, but the system is already failing Mexican kids, who may not understand the adjudication process and are frequently unable to articulate their fear. A United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) memo obtained by ThinkProgress found that border patrol agents operated on a “widespread bias” that Mexican children don’t really need protection; that they are not trained to interview children; that children are asked to sign a form waiving the right to appear before an immigration judge in advance of their interviews; and that they aren’t given meaningful due process.

Weber and Gohmert agreed with Cruz on policy, citing the Bible in their arguments that while individuals should help the migrants, the government should not.

They are backing proposals to tweak a 2008 trafficking law that would likely give children who are fleeing violence even less opportunity to have their cases heard. In fact, they are joining other Republican members of Congress in refusing to grant President Obama’s emergency funding request to handle the migrant influx unless the 2008 trafficking law is amended.

“If you know the story of the Good Samaritan, if you should know Jesus’ teaching at all, whoever shall give a cup of cold water in my name and all these little ones shall not lose their reward,” Weber told ThinkProgress. “That is the Christian faith. For a government to do it and have programs to do it, I don’t think is our calling.”

Weber added, “I think if the churches will get involved, if the neighbors and communities get involved, that’s the answer. They can help the children while they’re here, but we still need to framework — we treat them kindly and justly and promptly. And we kindly and promptly reunite them with their countries and with their families that they left behind.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Gohmert agreed with Weber, saying, “individuals, and especially Christians, are supposed to reach out and turn the other cheek, but the government’s role is to treat people fairly and impartially. And to say that we’re going to give blanket amnesty to one group when there’s others that’s been trying five years, seven years, ten years, I’m helping many trying to get in legally. That’s grossly unfair.”

He added that protesters who shout at children in buses are “a shame,” but that he “understood their frustration. If we had a government that would enforce the law, then it would promote more peace and law-abiding here in the country. But when the government itself encourages law-breaking, then you’re going to encourage law-breaking from all kinds of factions. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. You’re seeing American people that are very, very frustrated with the lawlessness of this administration.”

Ambivalence At The Border

In Harlingen, Texas, about 35 miles away from McAllen, the Baptist Child & Family Services currently runs a facility to house migrant children and their families. That facility was set to be relocated, but now its future remains uncertain ever since reactive conservatives panned a proposal to renovate an unused, old hotel to house about 600 migrant children and their families in a nearby town.

The town’s mayor, Chris Boswell, told ThinkProgress it is the obligation of Americans to take care of these kids once they’re here. But not for very long. Unlike Mayor Darling, Boswell wants to see reforms similar to those supported by Cruz, Weber, and Gohmert that would send kids back in a hurry even if it means they never get a hearing before a judge.

“There is some evidence that the timing of the executive order on the prosecutorial discretion seems to fit with the increase in unaccompanied minors,” Boswell said, suggesting that the kids came here from Central America because of the DACA program, rather than because they were fleeing violence. “But also, the action that is meant to protect children from sex trafficking and that kind of abuse, the unintended consequence also allows them to stay here longer.”

Boswell’s political hostility toward potential refugees crossing the southern border is shared by many mayors in the deep red border towns of the Rio Grande Valley. But many Texans are not convinced that these lawmakers’ positions are humane at all, so long as they are advocating to send migrants back without fully assessing their refugee status.

Rosalie Weisfeld, a Corpus Christi resident and member of the Texas Democrat party, compared the experience of migrant children fleeing Central America to her Jewish grandfather fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Standing at an immigration rally across the street from the McAllen Border Patrol Station, she implored politicians from both parties to think about themselves and children in the same situation. She told ThinkProgress, “What mother would want to send their child away? What father would want to send their child away? They’re doing it because of a crisis in their countries. We need to help them.”

McAllen resident Eli Olivarez agreed with Weisfeld, adding that politicians were trying to “find the easy way out” of the situation by fast-tracking the deportation of the kids. “I am surprised by Mr. Cuellar’s stance because he is a border citizen,” Olivarez said. “But I also find that there’s a hidden agenda here for him and so I take no credence to what he’s doing and I hope that he changes. … Jesus did say love thy neighbor as you would yourself and that’s what I’m doing. I’m loving my neighbor.”

One House Democrat, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) likewise slammed the HUMANE Act, telling the Texas Observer, “I find nothing redeeming in it. It will rush these kids back to the communities from which they fled, which in many case will almost certainly mean death.”

The arrival of so many migrant children has struck a nerve with anti-immigrant protesters across the nation, many of whom view the crisis as an Obama administration-made crisis. Their frustration culminated in hundreds of sparsely attended protests in mid-July. The pattern of those protests was that for every crowd against the children, there was typically a larger one in support of the children fleeing violence, sometimes held only yards away. Even the ones held at the Mexican consulate (a popular, but odd destination, given that most children are fleeing Central America) saw few anti-immigrant protesters. That was no less the case in McAllen, ground zero, where more than 60 people turned out with signs of compassion and love for the kids, while only three anti-immigrant protesters showed up, unsure if they were even at the right place.

A Microcosm In McAllen

One of three anti-immigrant protesters — who showed up 40 minutes late for the planned protest against the McAllen rally — launched into an impassioned argument about sending migrant children back to their countries and securing the border from disease carriers. Sporting an undeniably patriotic outfit that would make even the Statue of Liberty feel insecure, the woman, who would only say that she’s an “unusual pro-choice Christian” with the Tea Party-backed Overpasses for America, told ThinkProgress that the children “should be turned away and we need to beef up our borders.” She also suggested that the migrant children could potentially be sick and that they could not only tax the health care system, but infect Americans.

“Glenn Beck, now that he’s become a Bible-thumper, I think he’s missing the big picture,” she added. “I think that the media has portrayed all these children, ohh, it’s the children, oh the poor children, well, have you seen some of the pictures that Border Patrol people have been sneaking out of the facilities? Have you seen the one with a whole room full of — they look like thugs? They all have mustaches and beards. I’m sorry, they’re not little children.”

She then admitted, “I don’t really have anything to back this up, but it’s my impression.”

Penning a Texas Tribune opinion piece in early July, Darling refuted claims that there has been an uptick in criminal activity in McAllen and that migrant children and their families spread diseases — statements that Congressional members have, ironically like a virus, spread in press releases.

He wants to ensure that these children are given a fair court hearing after they have been processed at the Border Patrol station. “It’s an easy decision,” Darling explained. “There really should be a process — you’re talking about a 12-year-old kid making legal decisions, in a legal environment, that’s very intimidating. I think that they need help to be able to make their claims in a legal fashion and then have the judges rule on it. If it means sending them back to the country, that’s fine. If it means staying here, that’s fine. But as long as they have due process in an appropriate fashion, then I think that’s all we’re asking.”

Additional reporting by Jack Jenkins, ThinkProgress Senior Religion Reporter.