TEXAS VIEW: While Biden fiddles, Abbott throws gas on a burning border

It is easy to see the ugliness and inhumanity of concertina wire strung along the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

It is easy to see the dangerous absurdity of orange buoys floating in the river. The buoys are at once menacing, pushing asylum-seekers into potentially swift currents, and yet they are insignificant in comparison to the Rio Grande and Texas’ 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

We condemn Gov. Greg Abbott’s cruel tactics and the immense cost in suffering and tax dollars ($9 billion by the end of next year) of Operation Lone Star. But Operation Lone Star does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists against the backdrop of federal border and immigration policy.

The Biden administration has put up barriers that keep people from applying for asylum at the nation’s ports of entry, leading many to navigate the river and those buoys and razor wire. The Biden administration has failed to intervene in Operation Lone Star despite ongoing civil rights concerns, including the separation of fathers from their families.

In many ways, the Biden administration’s border and immigration policies have set the conditions for Abbott and other politicians to exploit. This failure is particularly pronounced in the Biden administration’s handling of asylum claims, its use of a problematic app that has hindered many of those claims and the civil rights issues that permeate the southern border.

Denying asylum

To make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico under dangerous conditions is taken from former President Donald Trump’s playbook. That such policies should occur under a Biden administration hardly makes them more palatable.

Following the end of Title 42-based asylum restrictions in May, the Biden administration required migrants first to apply for asylum online and to seek asylum in a country through which they have passed.

These policies have led to a dramatic decrease in border crossings, but they are being challenged for potentially violating U.S. law and the rights of people to present their claims.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, of the Northern District of California, blocked these policies. But they have remained in effect while under appeal, and earlier this month a three-judge panel with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to maintain Biden’s policies, while setting arguments for late September.

While Judges William Fletcher and Richard Paez, who are President Bill Clinton appointees, offered no rationale for their ruling, Judge Lawrence VanDyke, a President Donald Trump appointee, offered a blistering dissent, raising the specter of political bias. The judges had overturned similar Trump policies, he wrote, leaving “the impression that something other than the law is at work here.”

One of the greatest obstacles for making asylum claims is a tool that should facilitate appointments: the CBP One mobile app, which St. Mary’s University immigration law professor Erica B. Schommer said has “proven to be deeply problematic.”

Scheduling appointments is difficult due to limited slots and many technical glitches; the app only functions in a handful of languages; facial recognition software has misidentified people of color. Beyond this, not everyone has a cellphone, as many phones are stolen or lost as people make harrowing journeys to the border.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican who represents part of San Antonio and Eagle Pass and has put forward credible legislation to expand work visas, said the CBP One app “is a complete wreck,” which cartels exploit.

“So, what’s happening is the cartels are the ones funneling people into this app,” he said. “Because the people who are seeking refuge, they don’t know about this app.”

Gonzales said the Biden administration should be focused on expanding legal pathways for immigration that reflect economic reality.

“Instead of talking about legal immigration, they’re continuing to go down this failed attempt on illegal immigration,” he said.

In March, a group of Democratic lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro and Greg Casar, who represent San Antonio, called on the Biden administration to improve the app and create an alternative pathway for asylum-seekers to make their claims.

“Under both U.S. and international law, an appointment is not required to seek asylum,” the group of lawmakers wrote in a letter.

To this point, Schommer said once an asylum-seeker reaches the middle of the river, “they are technically in U.S. territory, and they’re supposed to be able to make their asylum claims.”

But that’s not happening.

Civil liberties concerns

Given the obstacles the CBP One app presents, it’s not surprising people then cross the river.

But crossing the river has steered many would-be asylum-seekers into Operation Lone Star, which is plagued with allegations of civil rights abuses as defendants have languished in jail on trespassing charges.

The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into Operation Lone Star last summer, but nothing has come of it. That lack of progress has flummoxed Castro.

“We’ve seen multiple stories now: cases of people who’ve been kept in jail much longer than they should have been,” Castro said. “Complaints about people who are on public property, public lands, then being charged with private trespass. I mean, that’s not a hard thing to go verify.”

These concerns have been elevated with the revelation that Texas Department of Public Safety officials have separated fathers from their families. As Hearst Newspapers has reported, dozens of families, including those with young children, have been split apart as DPS officials arrest fathers for trespassing, then refer families to federal custody. Fathers then face the threat of expedited removal.

In an Aug. 15 letter, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus demanded Attorney General Merrick Garland have the Department of Justice investigate these separations and take “immediate action to protect the rights of those in custody.”

This is painfully necessary since, many on-the-ground observers have said federal officials often work closely with DPS, even if the Texas and federal governments are in political opposition.

“The entire Operation Lone Star depends on the close coordination of Border Patrol, ICE and DPS,” said Doug Keller, an attorney with the Lubbock Private Defenders Office, which has represented many of the migrants facing trespassing charges. “It’s not uncommon to have DPS work with Border Patrol to arrest individuals.”

In a better world, asylum claims would be processed fairly, but quickly; civil rights would be honored; and the national border security discussion would be about so much more than walls. Instead, we have drownings and persistent civil rights concerns. It’s as untenable as it is shameful. What is the point of the presidency, if not to address such glaring failure?

San Antonio Express-News