Utah delegation weighs differing legislative solutions to border crisis

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent (foreground) confronts one of numerous migrant groups along the southern border in Texas (Photo courtesy CBP.gov)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although united in their opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, members of Utah’s delegation in Congress are split over alternative proposals.

In late March, Sen. Mike Lee introduced a proposal called the “Stopping Border Surges Act, ” which aims to plug loopholes in the beleaguered U.S. immigration system.

“Our immigration system is riddled with inexplicable loopholes that undermine the well-being of immigrant children and families as well as the integrity of the system itself …” Lee insists. “Predictably, those various loopholes act as magnets for surges of aliens at the border in numbers our county cannot support or sustain.”

Meanwhile, over in the U.S. House, three Utah representatives – John Curtis, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens – are supporting the so-called “Dignity Act,” a proposal by Rep. Maria Salazar, R-FL.

The Utah lawmakers endorsed that proposal during a recent Capitol Hill press conference where Salazar explained that her alternative to the immigration overhaul proposed by Biden would create a means for undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States and potentially attain legal status.

Lee’s plan is full of details that basically preserve Trump administration immigration policies. Utah’s senior senator says that the continuation of those policies is needed because “… the deliberate non-enforcement of our laws, as well as the policies and promises of the Biden administration, has created the (current border) crisis.”

Biden’s immigration plan, dubbed the “Citizenship Act of 2021,” was sent to Congress in late January. The White House says the proposed legislation would modernize the U.S. immigration system; prioritize keeping families together; promote economic growth; responsibly manage the border with smart investments; address the root causes of migration from Central America; and ensure that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.

Despite those lofty goals, the Biden proposal has sparked a surge of illegal immigration along America’s southern border.

Although U.S. officials on the border continue to rapidly “expel” adult migrants who cross the border without first considering their claims for protection, unaccompanied children are exempted from the expulsion policy.

Unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors are now filling initial detention facilities run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and straining the capacity of the Department of Health and Human Services to subsequently shelter them.

On April 1, for example, nearly 5,400 migrant children were in CBP custody and more than 13,000 in were HHS care.

The CBP reports that more than 9,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended by its agents in February. The Biden administration has since clamped down on the release of similar information for March, but watchdog groups operating along the border say that unaccompanied migrant children have been arriving there at an accelerated rate since late February.

While the White House continues to insist that there is no immigration crisis, Lee said during a recent tour of the Texas border that Biden’s policies are “encouraging waves of immigration; enriching drug cartels and coyotes; and subjecting vulnerable women and children to sexual assault, abuse and human trafficking.”

In contrast to Lee’s hardline stance on immigration policy, Salazar and her Utah allies propose a more moderate approach that has some potential for bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Salazar’s plan would create a pathway to permanent resident status for undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background investigation, pay taxes, stay employed and pay a fine to obtain a work visas. It would also provide immediate legal status for the so-called “Dreamers,” who are young undocumented immigrants who were brought to America illegally by their parents.

In keeping with mainstream Republican principles, Salazar’s plan also includes provisions to beef up border security.

During the Capitol Hill press conference, Rep. Blake Moore, R-UT, praised Salazar’s “Dignity Act” as “… an aspirational, pro-growth and inclusive proposal … that will both secure and strengthen our country.

“I am proud,” he added, “to join with my colleagues to craft common sense, workable reforms that streamline the guest worker visa process, strengthen our border security and support the American workforce.”

Recent polling by the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics indicates that about 55 percent of Utahns share Moore’s view, particularly with regard to the status of “Dreamers.”

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