The U.S. Immigration System Is Broken and Inhumane
Stories of people I met who are trapped in a system that America built
Most decisions about our border crisis will be made 1,936 miles away by people who have never breathed the desert air, never consoled a mother who doesn’t know where her child is, never heard the fear in the voice of a young man who had to choose between a brutal death back home and a chance at life in America, never spoken to the agents who are asked to enforce these inhumane policies, and never seen the cages where humans are kept like creatures in a zoo.
But that’s wrong.
One of the things I learned in the Marines is that to truly understand a situation, you have see it firsthand, on the ground. People told me what it was like in Baghdad, but I didn’t know the situation until I got there; I didn’t know how the Iraqi people would greet us until I met them; I didn’t know what war would be like until I fought in one. And for each of those experiences, I had preconceptions that proved to be wrong once I lived them.
Immigration is an emotional issue for many Americans. It’s colored by our experiences, our families, our biases — and I’m no different. That’s why it made sense to travel to El Paso, Texas, and then to Juarez, Mexico, with a group of leaders I’m supporting for Congress. We wanted to see, experience, and understand all aspects of U.S. immigration, and talk to the people whose lives depend on our decisions in Washington. We visited shelters, safe houses, detention facilities, and checkpoints. We heard from moms and dads, sons and daughters, immigrants and refugees, activists and ICE agents — each part of a broken system.
First, we met with mothers and fathers who are seeking asylum in the United States. One story from one mother stood out among the rest:
A phone rings in the middle of the night, the mother answers, and an unknown voice on the other end describes her daughter’s daily routine. “Your daughter looked pretty in that yellow sundress and red sandals,” the voice says. “She’s a very good student — always gets to school early and is laughing with her friends,” he continues. “Whose house does she visit every day after school? A friend? An aunt? Her grandmother?” he asks.
The mother is terrified for her daughter. She screams into the phone repeatedly, demanding to know who is on the other side of the line, but no answer comes. Instead, all she gets in return is a not-at-all veiled threat: “It would be awful if anything happened to your daughter. Perhaps we can protect her…”
Unfortunately, her experience isn’t unique. Parents in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador know the choice: their daughter is raped if they say “no” to that voice on the phone, and their family is murdered if they go to authorities. Or they give in and contribute to a cycle of gangs, drugs, and sex trafficking.
But every parent knows there’s also a fourth option, a gamble unto itself: If the family packs up their limited belongings and treks 2,266 miles across a sweltering desert, there is a chance that they could find a safe place to call home.
Up against a wall, for any loving parent, the choice is clear.
Next, we crossed into the city of Juarez, Mexico, to meet deported U.S. veterans at a makeshift safe house that doubled as the home of one of the elder veterans. The guys we met were legal residents but never full American citizens. Yet they had fought in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq, risking their lives for the country they had come to love and call home. Then, after giving so much for all of us, they were deported from their home after making mistakes that many other Americans have made.
One of the first guys we met was Frank, a U.S. Navy veteran who spoke with a warm smile about the pride he felt working below the waterline in engine rooms on warships. He reminisced about how much he loved powering those machines, and he recalled the 120 degree temperatures that defined “his office.” He remembered the fun times he had in Singapore and Korea with his shipmates, drinking and laughing long into the night.
Then, Frank’s voice quivered. Those fun nights were also where his “problem” had begun, and with tears in his eyes, he began to talk about life after the Navy — the drinking that followed him home and eventually led to a DUI arrest. He told us how that arrest led to his deportation to Mexico, a country he hadn’t lived in since he was a child. And he cried telling us about his children, who are now grown, and his parents, who are in the twilight of their lives — all still in America, a border away for the rest of Frank’s life.
Drinking and driving is a grave mistake, but it’s a mistake that many other guys I served with have made — that many Members of Congress have made — and they all paid the price and had a chance at redemption.
Frank paid his fines and did his time as well. And then his life was destroyed.
This administration often uses the phrase “law and order” to discuss criminal justice, but when they pardon their friends and attack the FBI while ruining the lives of people like Frank, their true meaning becomes clear: “laws apply to them, not us, and order is what we make it.”
“Law and order” shouldn’t be a phrase that only applies to the poor and powerless in America. And “deported veteran” shouldn’t be a phrase at all.
Across town, at a hot and barren shelter in Juarez, recently deported immigrants told us stories of courage and heartbreak. Many came to the U.S. fleeing unimaginable violence, just looking for a safe place to call home. Others lived in America for years. They worked, married, had children, made a life, and then were deported to a country they’d never known because of a speeding ticket or an expired license.
“Casa de Migrantes,” as the people staying there called it, showed us another side of the immigration challenge: people who were brought to the United States as children by their parents, grew up in our communities, and now call America home.
The shelter receives between 40 to 60 of these deportees and others every week. One man lived in California for 35 years, another in Pennsylvania for 20, another in Houston for 18, another in Denver for 10, and another in Florida for 19. These were not old men, but they left full lives and families behind in the only country they could remember. One man was taken from his wife and two daughters in Idaho, and another was torn from his three girls in California. These men left behind jobs, too. They fixed roofs, washed dishes, tended gardens, built houses, and maintained oil pipelines. In Mexico, they’re lost.
Carlos’ story was among the most haunting. He was brought to the U.S. when he was 3 years old, grew up here, married here, and had two girls here. He was their provider — just trying, like we all do, to make the best life for his family and his children.
“I was working for me and my two daughters,” Carlos said. His voice cracked when he thought about his wife. “She has an addiction, and that’s where it hurts me. She’s a good mother but she can’t leave it, the meth.” He knows he may never see her or his girls again. Carlos is still trying to return legally, but he’s been a criminal in the eyes of the United States since he was a toddler. As for his daughters, he says, “I put them in God’s hands, hoping that whoever she [my wife] gets with won’t hurt them.”
When I left at the end of the day, I asked each deportee what they would do. Nearly every person we spoke with, asylum seekers and deported immigrants alike, wants to return to the U.S. legally. But a legal return to the States, where they’re already considered criminals and increasingly likened to animals, is doubtful.
“I’ll just go to Michoacán [Mexico],” one man said. “And struggle.”
Others will keep trying nonetheless; borders and checkpoints don’t mean much for a father eager to see his daughters.
Our next day started early at the ACLU office in El Paso. Passionate civil rights activists and legal experts helped us understand the breaks and abuses in our system, the people who fall through the cracks, and the detention lottery that gives one person sanctuary and another a trip back to where they started.
Nearly everything that’s wrong with our system, these activists explained, can be understood through the lens of one bridge. I had walked across this bridge the night before, and for me, it was simply a way home from Mexico into El Paso. But for many who cross the bridge, it’s the biggest chance in the world: a journey from danger to hope, persecution to asylum. Or it used to be.
When you approach the bridge from Mexico, you can see the U.S. checkpoint on the other side. In the middle, there’s a line marked by a Mexican flag, an American flag, and a plaque. It’s 400 yards of limbo. During the Obama administration — and every other administration in recent memory — anyone could walk across that bridge and legally seek asylum. And if they did so, they wouldn’t be ripped from their families or put into cages; they’d be given an ankle monitor (for tracking) and allowed to live with their families while they awaited a ruling on their status. Seeking asylum is a legal right recognized by the United States and democracies around the world.
Today, because of the Trump administration, things are different. If an asylum seeker somehow makes it across the bridge, he or she is immediately arrested, placed in a detention center and, until recently, torn from his or her family. But most people don’t even make it that far; Border Patrol agents have been ordered to stand in the limbo area, on the line, where they ask people for their IDs and turn away anyone who seeks asylum. It is not a stretch to say that these agents are breaking the law, not to mention what they are doing in terms of basic morality.
“The US is at capacity,” they say. “Turn around and go home.”
Asylum seekers have no choice but to listen. To claim asylum, they must have two feet planted in the United States. They can’t claim anything standing in Mexico or even two inches from the border. And that claim doesn’t guarantee citizenship or a life here; it only guarantees a thorough investigation and a hearing. That’s why the Trump Administration is putting Border Patrol agents there now — to prevent refugees from even being heard.
To fix these problems, which extend far beyond one bridge between El Paso and Mexico, the immigration legal experts and stakeholders we met with recommended several changes: full transparency and Congressional oversight of ICE and CPB’s detention policies, development of humane detainment facilities, and the reinstitution of the ankle bracelet policy known as Alternative To Detention (ADT). Most of all, they argued, Border Patrol agents should not determine who gets to seek asylum in America and who doesn’t: that’s not their job, it’s the job of immigration judges and it’s governed by long-held agreements in international law, not Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice.
After a couple hours, I walked out of the ACLU better informed and more aware of the challenges we face. Much of what they said could be summed up by something they told me on my way out: “Our immigration system has always been broken. But now, it’s broken and inhumane.” That’s what these activists are fighting.
The Detention Facility
Finally, we visited a detention center where we heard from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security officials, and detainees. The facility is clean, well run, and the staff is professional. But make no mistake: it’s a jail.
The guards and law enforcement officials do what they can with limited resources. The facility just added a few more phones but doesn’t have digital technology, so the guards use their own cell phones to allow detainees awaiting asylum and immigration hearings to FaceTime with their children and loved ones.
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy has strained the system even further by placing refugees and immigrants in jail with people we actually should be detaining: violent criminals, gang members, traffickers, and drug smugglers. Every bed is full as a result, and when one person comes in, another is transferred out.
We realized the impact of this musical chair policy while speaking with a group of immigrants and asylum seekers. Many of them didn’t know legal counsel was available, and others who had found legal counsel were moved throughout the system and forced to start over with each change in location. The detainees told us it’s not uncommon to be moved every four days or every week.
One young man we met at the facility had come from Cuba, spending five days in the open water on a raft that he built himself, short on food and water and desperately hoping to make it to America. He left behind his family, his friends — everyone he knew — because he feared for his life. His makeshift raft came ashore in Mexico, and from there, he walked to the U.S. to ask for political asylum. He even brought money for a visa. America has proudly welcomed refugees from the oppressive, communist, Castro regime for decades. But under Trump, the system landed him in El Paso, where 99 percent of asylum claims are denied. He knows that he will likely be killed by the Cuban government if he returns.
Another man fled Nicaragua, fearing government-sanctioned brutality and murder that has been widely reported and corroborated. But he fears that his asylum claim, like that of so many others, will not be found “credible” in El Paso. He’d have a better shot in any other facility, but “nobody gets through in El Paso.” That’s the lottery.
Throughout our conversation, I polled the group through an interpreter: Who is from Guatemala? Who is from Mexico? Who has son or daughter? Each question elicited varying degrees of raised hands.
When I asked who had seen a lawyer, only two hands rose. When I asked who was scared of being killed if they were sent home, every single hand shot up.
“I prefer to die in the United States,” said another man from Cuba with his hand in the air. “I cannot go back to Cuba.”
The man from Nicaragua agreed, adding that “freedom is the most beautiful thing for a human.” When I asked if he would try to come here again, heads nodded as he said, “as many times as necessary.”
The Broken System
Washington has struggled for years to come together and solve the immigration challenges America faces. Policymakers, particularly in this administration, seem more concerned with fear-mongering and finger pointing than on digging in and finding solutions. This inaction has forced children, who have only known life in America, to be sent to a foreign country; it has torn mothers away from their babies; and, for many people I met on the border, it will spell the difference between life here and death back home.
Leaving the border, I reflected on how proud I was to have traveled with Amy McGrath, Gina Ortiz Jones, Joseph Kosper, and Josh Welle, each of whom took time away from their busy campaigns in order to understand a real problem in our country. If all of us in Washington took the time to understand our problems at the ground level, they might be easier to solve.
What we saw down there was clear: our immigration system is broken. Nobody who enforces this system or falls victim to it thinks it’s working.
America has to be better than this. The man from Nicaragua said that “freedom is the most beautiful thing,” and he’s right — this country was built by immigrants upon that very idea. But seeing the cages where people slept, and hearing broken stories of broken families from nearly broken people, I couldn’t help but worry that our country is forgetting who we are and where we came from.
It’ll be our job, in the coming months and years, to make sure we remember.