A migrant died earlier the same day Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) arrived at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, a migrant detention facility at the Southern border. The Silicon Valley congressman says he found out about the fatality through a supervising border agent who confided the tragic detail last week to Khanna and other members of a congressional delegation to the U.S.-Mexico divide.
The migrant’s cause of death was unknown, but Khanna says it was most likely due to the strain of the treacherous journey that brought him there.
Indeed, migrants take increasingly dangerous routes to enter the U.S., eschewing closed-off ports of entry for river crossings and other alternatives, risking their lives to flee violence and poverty back home.
“[Trump’s] return-to-Mexico policy is leading to desperate measures and it has to be repealed,” Khanna says in a recent interview with San Jose Inside. The policy he’s referring to, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, require asylees to return to Mexico while the await a hearing in American immigration court.
But migrants face a grim reality in Mexico. Khanna says border agents told him that gangs recruit girls as young as 12 into sex work as so-called “gang girlfriends.”
While Trump’s return-to-Mexico policy has improved conditions at the border facility Khanna toured by reducing the number of detainees coming through, it comes at a cost to migrant safety. Many of the asylees turned away at the border were sent to Juarez, a city notoriously plagued by gang violence. As conflict between the government and drug-trafficking groups intensifies in the border city, the number of murders soars. Last year, authorities tallied 700 murders in the municipality of 1.3 million people.
At the time of Khanna’s visit to the border facility in the Mexican city, migrants had basic medical care and sanitation.
“I asked one of the city officials of Juarez,” Khanna says. “How do you manage thousands of refugees, when we in the United States have all these awful conditions?” The city official reportedly replied: “We don’t fear migrants the way you fear them.”
American lawmakers have taken action to ensure that the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) provide migrants with basic needs. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to set minimum standards for CBP to meet minimum standards of hygiene, nutrition and shelter provided to migrants.
“The Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the border situation, making it necessary for Congress to intervene,” Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said in a statement.
Khanna says he believes that the government’s failure to respond to the growing number of migrants is a gross disservice to agents patrolling the southern border. “By their own admission, they are not trained to care for psychological and medical needs of minors and families,” he says. “Their job as CBP officers is to protect the border. It’s not fair for a country to expect them to administer care for families or children.”
Khanna stresses the need for processing asylum claims in other countries migrants pass through before arriving at the U.S. border. The Obama administration established just such a program for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But Trump terminated the process when he took office in 2017.
Another policy that would go a long way toward helping the border crisis, in Khanna’s view? Giving work visas to migrants.
“There are very few people who I talked to that said, ‘I want to stay in the United States,’” he says. “What they want to do is work, make some money and go back. There needs to be a bipartisan solution to how we provide work permits.”
A year before Obama succeeded him, President George W. Bush pitched the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act to give 400,000 undocumented immigrants temporary employment visas, but it died in a Senate subcommittee.
Finally, Khanna tells San Jose Inside, he also believes that the U.S. should increase foreign aid to Central American countries.
“One thing [on which] I hope to reach bipartisan consensus is to provide aid to Juarez for the immigrants,” the congressman says. “If we absolve our responsibility of providing housing for migrants, the least we can do is to assist Juarez in providing basic humanity to people who are fleeing violence.”