News Magazine

Opinion: The answer to America’s border crisis is compassion

As the United States sees a sharp increase in immigration under President Joe Biden’s administration, the nation must respond from a place of principle — and Utah offers solid foundations from which to start.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist as 4,200 children were being kept in poor, crowded conditions in Customs and Border Protection facilities, in cells meant for adults. Biden, who criticized former President Donald Trump for keeping “kids in cages,” is passing the buck to his predecessor for the current situation, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying that “the last administration left us a dismantled and unworkable system.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are caught up in semantics, criticizing the Biden administration for calling the situation at the border a “challenge” and urging the president to label it a “crisis.” They say Biden’s rhetoric since taking office has encouraged the surge in immigration and point to the dangers posed to both American citizens and migrants by the COVID-19 pandemic in packed detention facilities.

The particular nuances of 2021 notwithstanding, it’s the same back-and-forth that’s plagued both parties for decades.

But principle is out there, and it can be found right here in Utah. The Utah Compact on Immigration, first signed in 2010 and reaffirmed in 2019, is “a declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion,” such as urging against unnecessary family separation, acknowledging strong families as “the foundation of successful communities,” recognizing the “economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers,” and adopting “a humane approach” to the reality that immigrants are integrated into Utah’s communities, which reflects the state’s “unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion.”

The compact is not meant to be a legislative solution — indeed, director of the National Immigration Forum Ali Noorani praised it as “designed to stop harmful legislation with a set of principles based on values fundamental to the broader community” and declared that “culture and values defeated politics and policy” — but it has been the foundation for numerous real-world solutions. In 2011, after the compact was signed, the state passed an immigration reform law that was heralded as a “model for America.” Years later, the principles laid out in the compact served as the bedrock upon which Gov. Gary Herbert requested more refugee resettlement in Utah, even as other states turned asylum-seekers away.

Lawmakers at the federal level can learn from the values enshrined here in Utah, as they balance the rule of law and complex law enforcement with the United States’ history as a nation enriched by immigrants — and as a beacon of hope for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

What’s happening at the border is not a picture of compassion, but neither is an unfettered pipeline into the United States. Between the extremes is reasonable immigration reform that prioritizes families while maintaining order and the rule of law.

Partisan gridlock on immigration reform has plagued Capitol Hill for decades and harmfully delegated the work to the White House, which can provide only impermanent changes. Executive action — done by one president and undone by the next — leaves millions of America’s most vulnerable in perpetual limbo.

Breaking congressional gridlock, in turn, will require political courage: It necessitates both Democrats and Republicans standing up to admit that their own parties have gotten immigration wrong in the past, have exploited an issue so intimately human as a lightning rod for partisan politicking. When lawmakers are willing to come together to work out immigration reform based on principle, meaningful and lasting solutions may finally be found.

As Biden considers his options and faces growing pressure from both Republicans on his right and progressives on his left, he must look to the inherently American values, embodied here in Utah, to rise to the challenge — or crisis.