Two years ago, Sen. James Lankford was part of a bipartisan group that came close to getting traction on immigration reform; now it’s all about the border.
Immigration stumped the last three presidents and is causing frustrations for the current one. It’s a behemoth spanning border security, work permits, family reunification and citizenship naturalization. Plus, there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. waiting for relief. It’s one of the most dense areas of law.
Many lawmakers talk about immigration but haven’t put their name to efforts to find workable solutions.
Lankford hasn’t shied away from it since taking office in 2015. He is a member of the Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee, where immigration is a central consideration. He also views it as a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s a big deal to me,” Lankford recently said in a meeting with the Tulsa World editorial board. “It’s why I’ve been at the border multiple times before, and why I was there a couple of times in the last four weeks. We’ve got to figure this out.”
President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — usually known as DACA — to give specific undocumented youth a reprieve from deportation. It was temporary, as are all presidential executive orders.
When President Donald Trump took office, he set out to end the program. In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared it illegal followed by a memo from the acting secretary of homeland security announcing the program’s wind-down.
“That’s a gift because immigration doesn’t get solved because it doesn’t have a deadline,” Lankford said. “Without a deadline, Congress doesn’t want to do hard things. That’s why they pass the budget at the last second; that’s why appropriations are done past the last second. With immigration, there is no deadline, and it’s hard.”
With the clock ticking toward February 2019, Lankford joined a group of others to find a fix. Four immigration reform bills were considered but didn’t receive enough support.
“What should’ve happened when none of them got 60 votes, we would sit down in a back room and start negotiating how to find common ground between these four bills and merge into a final bill and bring it out,” Lankford said.
“Instead, that very same day, the courts stepped in and said we want to evaluation whether DACA was legal or not. They took the case, and everyone walked away. Literally, there was a few of us standing there at the altar saying we should finish. And, everyone said not until the court determines this.
“That’s what pulled the rug out of the negotiations.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Trump’s decision on a 5-4 vote.
“Then elections occurred, and everything starts all over again,” Lankford said.
Only, not much as started again. Congress is back at a stalemate.
A smaller victory came when Congress approved a measure giving presidents authority to double the available work permits.
Lankford said the original goal was to mandate the expansion but that couldn’t get sufficient support. It came from information showing most immigrants arrive after getting a job offer.
“Allowing people to move into seasonal work legally is very different than incentivizing illegal activity,” Lankford said. “It’s more than just having economic opportunities here. It’s usually a family member who contacts their people back home and says they have a job for them. It’s relational connections.”
Right now focus is on the jump in unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border. The unaccompanied children program has increased every year since its creation in fiscal year 2012 in the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The only exemption was last year during the pandemic. Referrals went from 69,488 youth in fiscal year 2019 to 15,381 referrals the following year, according to a U.S. Department Health and Human Services report.
A Migration Policy Institute paper indicates the pandemic hampered reparations by limiting shelter space and issuing a federal order barring new arrivals. A federal judge lifted that order in November, ramping up youth border arrivals.
Lankford released a video from the border recently, criticizing conditions and the release process. He considers this the top problem facing U.S. immigration at the moment.
“Talking about border security and trying to secure that is not just a trite phrase. It’s an operational phrase and humanitarian phrase,” Lankford said. “Otherwise, you invite the traffic to come in. … The two big issues are our ports of entry where illicit materials move with illicit materials, and people traveling through the border.”
Human traffickers misinform victims about changes in American immigration laws. When DACA was announced, a surge of minors arrived wrongly believing they would become citizens.
“When we start talking about nuts and bolts, the traffickers are going to use that moment to take advantage of people because they are making tens of thousands of dollars per family,” Lankford said.
“When we talk publicly about the issue of immigration and a real bill that is moving, we better have resolved the border security issue first and basic operations at the border.”
Lankford would like to see asylum cases determined at the border. These are claims of being in danger within their home country and decided by judges in administrative immigration courts across the country.
A backlog of asylum cases has hearings being set three years from today, Lankford said.
“If you don’t show up for that court hearing three years from now, no one comes looking for you. It’s considered low priority, so you’re in,” Lankford said. “Our definition of asylum is not wrong, how we handle the request of asylum is wrong.”
There’s still the challenge of monitoring a border of more than 1,900 miles that includes deserts, rivers and private property. Trump’s wall was more a symbol than proven barrier.
Lankford said border agents are relying more on other surveillance.
“We have the engineering to know how to handle border security, and we continue to improve technology,” Lankford said.
Ultimately, the best way to stop the hemorrhaging of people from a country is to stabilize that country.
“Leaders in Central America will say they don’t want people leaving their country because they can’t grow the economy,” Lankford said. “If we continue to allow open flow, we are destroying Central American in the process.”
There’s a double edge to that.
Remittances — money sent from immigrants in the U.S. to families in their home countries — can be a significant portion of the gross domestic product in those counties, according to the Pew Research Center.
The highest are in Honduras and El Salvador with more than 20% GDP, followed by 14% in Guatemala, 8% in the Dominican Republic, 3% in Mexico and 2% in Colombia.
“That’s a nice touch, and (the leaders) would say that their economy would collapse if that goes away,” Lankford said. “But they can’t prosper if their workers leave and come here.”
The hardest political solution is what to do about the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
Most immigrants in the country — (77%) — are living with legal status. Of the undocumented immigrants (nearly 11 million), 66% have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
Lankford said he’s not in favor of allowing a path for citizenship because they started out with an illegal act. But, he’s not comfortable with the status quo of having so many living in a shadow world.
For now, he wants to concentrate on the border.
“If we don’t have the personnel, technology and infrastructure at the border secured and in place, whatever we do for those individuals here will incentivize every country in the world to come at us right after that,” Lankford said.
“We’ve got to be able to cut that off before we manage what we are doing internally. It doesn’t have to be years apart, but we can’t have the same flood we’re dealing with now and say we’re going to open up and do this with social policy.”