Nearly a month removed from the lifting of Title 42, the set of pandemic-era protocols that turned away most undocumented migrants seeking entry into the United States, a paper by a Texas banking executive could provide a roadmap for policymakers to secure the border and to develop a more coherent immigration policy, all while earning bipartisan support.
Common Sense Border Management, a series of recommendations by Dennis Nixon, the president of Laredo-based IBC Bank, looks at ways Congress and the administration could update U.S. immigration laws, including the asylum process that in the last several years has been shown to be ill-equipped to address today’s migration patterns, and make the Texas-Mexico border region more secure by improving infrastructure and the environment around the Rio Grande.
Texas Association of Business President and CEO Glenn Hamer, one of the business community’s most vocal advocates for reforming the country’s immigration laws, calls Nixon’s paper, “an important piece of work.”
“Few business leaders know and understand the border region the way Dennis Nixon does,” Hamer said. “Not only does he understand the economic imperative of solving this issue, but as a resident of Laredo, he has an insight into the binational relationship between the U.S. and Mexico that should be valuable to Capitol Hill.”
The paper calls for reforms in seven areas, starting with the immigration and asylum system, which Nixon says should begin in a migrant’s home country, not at the border or port of entry.
An improved asylum system
“Individuals should go through the first interview in their home country to determine their eligibility for an asylum claim,” the paper says. “If this interview determines the asylum claim is unworthy, the claimant is rejected. If the claim is deemed worthy, then the claimant can move forward.”
The outmoded asylum system has resulted in disruptions to cross-border commerce. DHS closed an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas in 2021, due to a surge in Haitian asylum seekers that overwhelmed officials there. Most recently, asylum seekers gathered in such large numbers in Ciudad Juárez across from El Paso that commercial operations at the Bridge of the Americas linking the two cities was halted.
Nixon argues that asylum seekers should be permitted to work, which would benefit not only the migrant, but the U.S. economy. It’s an idea that has its champions in the U.S. Senate, with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I, and Maine Senators Susan Collins, R, and Angus King, I, sponsoring the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which attempts to limit burdens borne by local communities by streamlining employment authorization for asylum seekers who enter the U.S. at a port of entry and who have passed rigorous background checks.
Lack of judges leads to significant case backlog
There are nearly 2 million immigration cases awaiting adjudication, but the backlog remains stubbornly high due to a lack of immigration judges. Immigration cases can take as long as 1,000 days to be resolved, which makes it unlikely that most migrants will appear for their hearing.
“A secure border is defined by our ability to enforce the rule-of-law,” Nixon writes. “However, the lack of immigration judges or post-apprehension consequences undermines the very rule of law we claim to enforce and protect.”
Nixon suggests removing immigration courts from the Department of Justice and making them an independent court system.
Better access at Rio Grande for Border Patrol
In addition to reforms to the immigration and asylum system, Nixon also urges steps to improve Border Patrol agents’ access to the Rio Grande, which in many parts of the Texas border has poor highway infrastructure and limited visibility due to the overgrowth of invasive species like the Salt Cedar and Carrizo Cane.
The paper says that cleaning up the river on both sides of the border would create a natural buffer zone that would allow Border Patrol better lines of sight and would eliminate hiding places for immigrant smugglers. Some more populated areas, like Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, could develop a binational park that would not only enhance the quality of life for the communities’ residents, but also make agents’ jobs easier.
“Increasing security and modernizing our immigration, visa, and asylum laws should go hand in hand,” Hamer said. “This paper doesn’t shy away from the need to get operational control of the border and to help Border Patrol agents in that task, but it also proposes ways to add new assets to border communities.”
Smart economic sense
Common Sense Border Solutions also makes economic arguments, reminding policymakers that immigrants are an asset to the country, making contributions that are especially important as U.S. labor force participation and population growth sputters.
“Foreign-born workers have been crucial to Texas’ rapid growth for decades,” the paper says. “That economic opportunity and steady growth are key ingredients in the state’s ability to keep landing the top spot in the best place in which to do business.”
Nixon does not underplay the need to strengthen border security but says there are effective and fiscally prudent ways to achieve it that also enhance the country’s relationship with Mexico, which Nixon calls, “our ally and partner.”
“So, if we really want border security, let’s clean up the river, fix the immigration court system, and modernize our immigration and asylum laws,” he writes.
Reform possible sooner rather than later, TAB president says
After decades of inaction, whether Congress will seize on the end of Title 42 as the moment to advance substantive immigration reform and border security legislation like the kind presented by Nixon remains an open question, but Hamer says there are some signs of optimism.
In addition to the legislation to grant work authorizations to asylum seekers, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sinema have partnered on legislation that would make new investments in Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, and also make reforms to the visa, asylum, and immigration systems, such as establishing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, individuals brought to the U.S. as children in an undocumented status by their parents.
Legislation sponsored by Republicans, H.R. 2, The Secure the Border Act, cleared the House in May. The bill is almost entirely focused on enforcement but could be used as a vehicle to add measures like those proposed by Tillis and Sinema.
Hamer says he believes the Texas congressional delegation is poised to play a pivotal role in any negotiation.
“The Texas delegation is comprised of members of both parties who are serious lawmakers with a deep understanding of the challenges that come from being a border state, but who also appreciate that Texas’ proximity to Mexico is a major economic advantage,” Hamer said. “Sen. Cornyn earlier this spring led a bipartisan delegation to Mexico to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the senator’s years on the Senate Finance Committee and the Judiciary Committee demonstrate a grasp of Texas’ indispensable trade relationship with Mexico as well as effective strategies for confronting traffickers and smugglers.”
Of Texas’ House members, Hamer pointed to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin, as members who could help move a border security and immigration bill through the legislative process to the president’s desk.
“Rep. Cuellar and Rep. Gonzales are two border district members who have made clear a genuine desire to set partisan interests aside to advance good policy, and Rep. McCaul has shown in his service on the Homeland Security Committee that he wants to find the balance between a secure border and a thriving economy. Texas is incredibly fortunate to have the delegation it has.”
El Paso-area Democrat Rep. Veronica Escobar recently cosponsored the introduction of The Dignity Act of 2023 along with Florida Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar. Their bill makes several reforms to the country’s immigration system, including developing a pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country.
The bill is not expected to advance in its current form, but elements of it could be included in an eventual compromise bill.
“Rep. Escobar’s bill is another example of Texans leading on one of the most important issues of the day,” Hamer said. “There are several good policy proposals circulating on Capitol Hill to address immigration, many of which originated with Texas lawmakers. The potential to weave them together into one bill that can earn bipartisan support is there.”
Hamer, who previously led the state chamber of commerce in Arizona, said freshman Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani, whose district covers a large swath of southeastern Arizona, is another one to watch on border issues.
“Juan is a rising star. His portfolio when he was a senior member of former Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration included border affairs and the state’s relationship with Mexico. He understands the security needs and the business case,” Hamer said. “Ciscomani working together with the likes of Cuellar, Gonzales and McCaul brings a level of expertise to border issues that their colleagues can trust. They’ll be the leaders who help get a deal done.”