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STEVENS: We Need to Address Our Border Crisis

We are a nation of immigrants, and, in many ways, this is one of our greatest strengths. But today, we are struggling to understand how we should address the flood of immigrants coming into the country. This is not the first time we have wrestled with this issue; if we are honest with ourselves, we have always had trouble dealing with immigration.

It is absolutely essential that we figure things out this time. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of promise, a nation that stands for freedom and a good life. And many in the world see us this way. But today, our immigration policy is in shambles. And Democrats and Republicans have failed to offer us a path to success.

In the last year, more than 2 million people were arrested while trying to enter the U.S. illegally. In addition, more than 1 million people have been released by authorities, pending a hearing on their requests for asylum. And only 10 American cities have a population that large. When will these hearings take place? This is a serious issue. The system is overwhelmed, and in the meantime, people keep streaming in. Every country has a responsibility to control its borders, and it is clear that we are not doing that.

Except for a few fringe activists, Democrats do not favor open borders, but few of them have not made the border crisis a priority. They amuse themselves by condemning the Trump administration’s policies, but that is not a solution.

Republicans, on the other hand, falsely claim that Democrats actually want to bring undocumented immigrants into the country to increase the number of non-White, non-Christian, Democratic voters. This may appeal to the Republican base, but it isn’t a solution either. Democrats seem to be hoping the problem will just disappear, and Republicans like using the problem to stoke fear. Democrats champion mercy, and Republicans champion toughness. We are in a dark place.

The answer is not to ignore the problem, and the answer is not to condemn and vilify immigrants. Although this is a multi-faceted and complex issue, a new vision has to address three major issues:

—Secure the border. Democrats hated Trump’s push for a wall, and I don’t think a wall is a solution, but the border must be secured before anything else is done. If we grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants before the border is secured, it will only encourage others to enter illegally.

—Redefine the meaning of asylum. Most of those trying desperately to enter the United States are not looking for asylum in the traditional sense; they are not personally under the threat of persecution by their government. They want a better life, and America should be excited about welcoming people who want to join us, work hard and make a better life for themselves. But if they have to try to prove something untrue, that they are seeking political asylum, then they will be forced to lie or hide from officials.

We need a broader definition of asylum, one that recognizes those fleeing terrible poverty, vicious gangs and rampant unemployment — places where there is no hope of a decent life. If we make this change, it will incentivize people to enter the country legally and welcome the legal process that lies ahead of them. They will not feel the need to act outside of the law. They will not live for years in the shadows, afraid of being exposed and vulnerable to being exploited by unscrupulous employers.

—Work consistently over several years, perhaps decades, to support economic and political improvements in the countries from which people are most likely to flee in the first place, such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. It should be a priority for us to partner with the governments in these countries to help them become better places to live. If people in these countries have no reason to flee, the number of those coming to our border will decrease significantly.

We really need comprehensive immigration reform, but this will be impossible until we have a political leader who can articulate a clear, compelling vision of what it should be. The American people need to know that we control our borders and welcome the stranger seeking a better life. We need a vision of the future that combines toughness and mercy.

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