By Paul Mulshine | Star-Ledger Columnist
There’s an old saying that goes, “Leave well enough alone.” There’s another that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I think we can safely say that President Biden would have done well to consider such wisdom before he implemented his policy for handling immigration along our southern border.
At least that’s the way Rick Cavazos sees it.
I first met Cavazos back in 2019 when photographer Andre Malok and I were taking a tour of the border. We stopped to take a look around at a gate in the border wall in the town of Los Indios as a TV crew was interviewing him about conditions on the border.
As mayor of the town – and a 25-year veteran of the Border Patrol – Cavazos was particularly well-suited to opine on the situation.
He told us that before the wall was built those crossing the border illegally would travel right through his town. Most of the migrants were just on their way to look for work elsewhere. But hidden among them were smugglers who had a nasty habit of getting in gunfights and car chases.
“For a community leader like myself, it’s important to keep that activity away from the community and closer to the river,” Cavazos said at the time. “Everybody wants to feel safe and secure in their community.”
When I called him the other day, Cavazos said his town remains mostly quiet. But the nearby border crossing has been busy. That’s because Biden reversed a Trump administration policy of directing asylum-seekers, most of whom are from Central America, to stay in Mexico while their applications are being considered.
“With the Trump policy of returning to Mexico, most ended up going back to their countries,” Cavazos said.
Not anymore. Now the migrants are let into the U.S. and given a “notice to appear” at an asylum hearing that can be three years in the future, he said.
That change in policy lured thousands of new migrants to the border, he said.
“It didn’t take long after January 20th that we started started seeing the spike,” he said. “The consensus is there was some kind of signaling to the migrants. They felt the Biden administration was gonna be a little more lenient with them.”
If so, they got that right. Back in 2019 when Andre and I were poking around the banks of the Rio Grande in a nearby town, we came upon an inflatable boat full of potential migrants hiding in the weeds on the American side. As soon as he saw us, the oarsman paddled back to Mexico. (See video below)
Now such a smuggler would simply drop his passengers off and let them surrender to the Border Patrol, Cavazos said. At that point they would be bused to a processing center and then released to await their hearings.
This presents little problem for the town of Los Indios, of which Cavazos is no longer mayor.
“People in the other parts of the country look at this and think it’s a border problem. But there’s really no reason for the migrants to stay here and compete for a minimum wage job,” he said. “They’re coming to a neighborhood near you.”
Whether that’s good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. But there has to be a better way to handle this.
Cavazos said that guy we saw paddling that inflatable was almost certainly a member of a cartel. They charge the migrants a big tax to pass through their turf, he said.
“The exploitation does not stop at the U.S. side of the river,” he said. “These immigrants have smuggling fees they have to pay. They have the promise of jobs but they get exploited in housing and get exploited in the workplace.”
This is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. The asylum-seekers commonly assert they are fleeing the cartels in their home towns. But the current system forces them into the clutches of the cartels at the border. Lately the cartels have been engaged in nightly shootouts that can be heard from the American side. (Meanwhile down by Mexico City cartel gunmen ambushed a police convoy and killed 13 officers.)
“What we don’t want is a policy like you see now that draws people to come up,” he said. “I really don’t know what the answer is, but you can’t do this indefinitely. At some point we have to reform the system.”
With control of both houses of Congress, it’s up to Biden to enact that reform, he said.
That brings up another old saying, one attributed to a prior Democratic president. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying, “The buck stops here.”
Maybe Biden should dig that out and read it.