Border Activist Trial

FILE - This March 2, 2019, file photo, shows a Customs and Border Control agent patrolling on the US side of a razor-wire-covered border wall along the Mexico east of Nogales, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

When Julian Castro advocated repealing the law making it a crime to cross the border without permission, he confirmed that in today’s political environment, there is no safe harbor for common sense. Republicans gleefully accused him of favoring “open borders,” as though he were going to eliminate all checkpoints and border agents.

Even former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose Texas House district adjoins Mexico, wasn’t willing to go along. When Castro challenged his fellow candidates to declare their support for repeal of Section 1325, as it is known, there was no stampede to join him. Cory Booker was notable for saying he had already endorsed it.

In the second debate, though, something striking happened: Every candidate on the stage raised a hand in support of the idea. They know this criminal classification is what gave the Trump administration the power to separate migrant parents from children. If it were a civil offense, migrants would not be jailed, only fined and deported — removing the pretext for tearing kids away.

Toughness is a failure. A 50% rise in prosecutions over the past five years has not dissuaded Central Americans from coming. The number of southwest border apprehensions has tripled since Donald Trump became president.

Central Americans who flee face an arduous journey of 1,500 miles or more. They often pay criminal smugglers thousands of dollars to help. If the expense and the prospect of robbery, rape and murder on the way don’t stop these migrants, the chance of being arrested here certainly won’t.

In the absence of real solutions, attempts to scare people into staying away are ineffectual. The reality is that many people are fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to escape violence and poverty. They would obviously prefer to come through legal channels. But our laws deny them that option.

Asked after the debate about the “open borders” charge Thursday, Castro scoffed: “We have 654 miles of fence. We have thousands and thousands of personnel at the border. We have planes, helicopters, boats. We have security cameras. All involved in border security.” Nowhere does he suggest scrapping all these.

The alternative to the awful, unworkable status quo is not erasing the border but letting more people enter legally — as immigrants, workers and refugees. But as the number of foreigners seeking admission has grown, the administration has cut the number it will accept.

Oscar Alberto Martinez, who drowned with his 23-month-old daughter in the Rio Grande, hoped to reach the United States to get a job and save enough money to buy a house. In response to public outrage, acting director of Citizenship and Immigrations Services Ken Cuccinelli chose to shame the victim. He said the deaths occurred “because that father didn’t wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion.”

Maybe that was because the system in place at the border condemns asylum seekers to spend weeks or months in Mexico, often in squalid conditions. The father sought asylum, by the way, not because he was persecuted but because that was his only hope of coming here legally.

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Castro wants to solve the problem by letting more people come legally. Among his proposals is admitting 4.4 million people awaiting visas to join their families in the U.S. Spouses and minor children would get to come immediately.

This is the opposite of what the Trump administration prefers. It responded to the surge in people seeking refuge with a 60% cut in refugee admissions.

President Barack Obama also created a program to reduce the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America. It let a parent who is here legally request refugee admission for children left behind, with the kids screened without having to leave their home countries. Trump abolished it.

Conservatives like Cuccinelli say they are not against immigration, but they want foreigners to come legally. With the image of drowned migrants fresh in our minds, here’s something they could do: prove it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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