In 2019, I traveled with a bipartisan delegation of American mayors to the border flashpoint of Tornillo, Texas, just outside of El Paso.
There, the U.S. government had set up a tent city, which looked strangely like a detention camp. Migrant children, disconnected from their families, were the inhabitants. Temperatures were scorching and our concerns growing, but our access to the facility was denied.
We could only imagine from a distance what those kids were going through. It felt un-American.
On that day five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined the Texas state government actually choosing to make the crisis even worse by busing migrants to Northern cities. We have no proof this has discouraged undocumented individuals from crossing the border. Meanwhile tens of thousands more migrants continue to make the perilous journey.
Since August of 2022, Texas has bused over 33,000 migrants to New York City. The actions of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have hurt my beloved city by radically overtaxing our municipal resources and undermining our ability to serve the almost 9 million people already living here. His actions have directly cost New York City $708 million, according to Mayor Eric Adams, money that is desperately needed to strengthen our schools and community safety efforts. New York residents live in constant fear that critical services like policing, sanitation and libraries will face severe reductions as a result of the migrant crisis, a fear Abbott has exploited.
But this problem is bigger than New York. One state government purposely penalizing the people of other states is un-American. So much for “e pluribus unum.”
As I’ve reflected on the twin challenges of migration and border security, I’ve tried to remember three basic things:
- Those fleeing oppression and violence are just like so many Americans’ ancestors. We need to treat them with the decency we would want for our own families if they were in the same situation.
- We need to remember, beyond the many emotions that these issues elicit, the very practical reality faced by America and most of the industrialized world: Birth rates are plummeting, populations are aging and labor is increasingly scarce. Unless we determine the right way to receive more immigrants, our way of life is in danger. In other words, the absence of immigration would collectively threaten us more than the problems caused by the current migrant crisis.
- Many millions of Americans, of all political stripes, have legitimate concerns about immigration and border security. They worry about safety, about stretched local resources, about the evident lack of order and consistency that pervades our broken immigration system. They have a damn good point.
With these three points in mind, I still see a pathway out of this mess.
I’m a Democrat and a progressive. But I also believe it’s time for stronger and more effective border security. And I think a more coherent, efficient and well-resourced asylum process will help achieve that goal.
But until there is consensus in Washington on those solutions, which won’t be easy, I worry even more about the political crisis these issues are causing and what it means for the future of our democracy.
And here’s where my argument, based on the previously mentioned principles, gets controversial.
I propose accepting Republican demands for greater border security in exchange for full funding of a humane and functioning asylum process that actually sets up migrants and their host cities for success.
And I propose spending billions to create the facilities necessary on the Mexican side of the border, including the concessions and incentives the Mexican government would require in order to accept this plan.
How can I say this as a lifelong progressive?
Because the evident irrationality of our current “system” has helped fuel right-wing extremism in the U.S., just as it has in Europe.
Untold millions of working-class Americans, people for whom the American dream has not existed for decades, are turning toward authoritarianism because they have seen their lives get harder and their hopes dimmer. They perceive the federal government as being less interested in their needs than those of people fleeing foreign lands.
We need to restore at least some of their faith, and fast. The 2024 election will be the ultimate referendum on the fate of American democracy. The crises of migration and border security are being manipulated by anti-democratic forces in a painfully brilliant manner. But that’s only true because of the underlying facts that are so clear to so many Americans.
We have to stop this negative momentum dead in its tracks. Let’s first re-secure our democracy on Election Day. Then we can try to realize our highest ideals. But if our democracy falters, you can kiss goodbye any semblance of immigration reform or justice for asylum-seekers.
So let’s do the smart and practical thing, while we still can.