Alfonse D'Amato

Let’s end the immigration stalemate in Washington

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The new year begins in Washington as the old one ended, with an impasse on border security and immigration that has tied President Trump and Congress in a knot and left federal agencies in limbo. Rather than fighting over who’s to blame for the stalemate, it’s time for all parties to the conflict to accept responsibility for solving it.

There’s a way to untie this knot, but it will require everyone to look rationally at the immigration challenges confronting the United States. We face a very real crisis on our southern border, and it is not of our making. The failed states of Central America, encompassing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — with the unintended complicity of a faltering Mexico — have left their citizens bereft of hope of breaking endless cycles of crime, corruption and grinding poverty.

Without a secure border, the U.S. will continue to be swamped by desperate migrants seeking refuge here. It isn’t surprising that they see our country as the best and perhaps last hope for escaping oppressive conditions in their home countries. And while America has already welcomed millions of these refugees in the past few decades, there are limits to how many we can realistically absorb without being overwhelmed. Think of America as a lifeboat, able to haul in only so many refugees before it is itself swamped.

That’s already happening along our border with Mexico. Ruthless smugglers and well-meaning but misguided immigrant advocates have helped deliver a flood of migrants, taking advantage of a huge loophole in American immigration policy that in fact encourages illegal immigration. Right now, there are over 700,000 migrants who illegally jumped the U.S.-Mexico border and then claimed protection under American law, which, as currently interpreted and enforced, grants asylum to those fleeing political oppression or violence in their homelands.

It’s not uncommon for many of these asylum seekers to deliberately surrender to U.S. border authorities and invoke this asylum protection to gain access to the American legal system. And because of special humanitarian considerations given to adults accompanied by young children, many immigrants purposely travel with youngsters to take advantage of the additional legal protections. The results are too often tragic, with children exhausted by the long trek north facing sickness and death.

Once these asylum seekers make it past the border, they are routinely released by overwhelmed immigration judges, with the dubious expectation that they will voluntarily show up for subsequent court hearings. The reality of this “catch and release” dilemma is that large numbers of illegal immigrants simply melt away into the U.S. and become part of a growing problem here. They hide in the shadows, often work off the books, and pay little or no taxes. Meanwhile, state and local governments are saddled with additional health care, education and social services costs. These costs ultimately fall on law-abiding American citizens.

While physically securing our borders will help stem the immigration tide, simply building a wall along the border will not alone stop determined illegals from climbing over or tunneling under it to seek entry though those gaping openings in our immigration law. And the recent Supreme Court case affirming that catch-and-release can’t be fixed by administrative fiat or judicial decision-making, but must be addressed by changing federal law, underscores the importance of congressional action. Congress and the president should start by reforming asylum law to replace catch-and-release with a firm “catch and return” policy to send illegals back over the border. That’s the only practical way to deter the current immigrant flood.

As my former colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham has also suggested, as part of a compromise with Congress, Trump should again offer to finally deal with the hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought or came to the U.S. illegally in recent decades who have known only their adopted country, and who have been good citizens. There is overwhelming support on Capitol Hill to do this.

For their part, Democrats who now control the House of Representatives should also show a willingness to compromise with the president and support reasonable border security measures, including strengthening the physical border and deploying more human as well as technical resources to secure it.

If our leaders in Washington can stop digging in and start climbing out of the immigration hole, the entire country will be better for it.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.