On today’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood discusses border security and the separation of migrant families with Arturo Morales-LLan, a member of the Utah Republican Party’s State Central Committee, and Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas.
A lightly-edited transcription is included below.
Benjamin Wood: A zero tolerance policy on illegal immigration, implemented by the Trump administration, has exacerbated family separations on the United States’ southern border.
Images and audio of children held, without their parents, in detention centers has catalyzed a bipartisan backlash to the policy, with Republicans and Democrats calling for immediate change. But opinions differ on how to end family separations, and what type of policy to adopt for individuals who enter the country illegally.
From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is Trib Talk
I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Arturo Morales-LLan here in the studio. Arturo thanks for joining us.
Arturo Morales-LLan: Thank you for having me here.
Wood: He’s a member of the Utah Republican Party State Central Committee as well as a legal immigration proponent, fair to say?
Morales-LLan: That is correct.
Wood: And on the phone, we also have Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas. Luis, thank you for being on “Trib Talk.” Luis, if you don’t mind starting, your organization sent out a letter this morning to members of Congress. What is it that you’re calling for and who is involved in this letter?
Luis Garza: We are sending out an open letter to our congressional delegation to ask them to vote “no” on both of the Republican-sponsored bills that are being discussed in the House of Representatives right now. One sponsored by Speaker [Pau] Ryan and the other one sponsored by Rep. [Bob] Goodlatte.
“Utahns believe we should always put families first — that families should be together. These bills do nothing to end family separations but instead provide limited legal protections to Dreamers, make it easier to deport more children more quickly, allow the government to keep children in jail for longer periods of time while shutting the door on asylum seekers. Both bills will create more family separation and put more children in jail.” — Open letter from Comunidades Unidas
We’re sending this letter because we’re really concerned about those bills and how it will really do nothing to end the separation of families that is happening at the border and throughout the country and also doesn’t provide any permanent solution to Dreamers who live here in the state of Utah.
Wood: Are there any proposals or bills out there right now that, that you find encouraging, that you’re more supportive of?
Garza: Not right now. There’s the Keep Families Together Act, which tries to stop the family separation immediately at the border. But I don’t think that’s a solution for the longterm either. What we are urging our delegation to do is develop a bipartisan solution that will keep families together while also providing a permanent solution for the Dreamers that live here in Utah, which is more than 10,000 here in our state.
Wood: Now last night, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, he went on Twitter and he was talking about this family separation issue with the border. This morning he wrote “I know my party owns this,” referring to the Republican Party, “POTUS,” he says, President Trump, “can stop this now. Congress must work together. Governor Herbert and I are doing everything we can. We must lift the hands that hang down, reunite and mend the broken hearts.” Arturo, I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about... we have the lieutenant governor here saying that this is a Republican-owned issue. Do you agree, and is this something that needs to be resolved?
Morales-LLan: Well, I guess when he says that this is a Republican-owned issue, it is because Republicans control the Senate, the House and obviously the White House. So can we fix it? We can. Can we propose solutions? Absolutely, we can. Do we have the majority, the proof in the Senate to get it accomplished? No. We need to have 60 votes over there to get anything done. So, no we were not able to do this on our own. We need a cooperation from both Republicans and Democrats. So I think that is what he’s referring to.
I think we need to acknowledge that there are three different issues here. One of them is border security. Two is the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. Probably it would be a fourth issue. The third one would be those seeking asylum in the United States. And then fourth will be the Dreamers. If we can address each one of those issues individually, I think we’ll be able to accomplish a more. I want to say that I appreciate the invitation are here. As long as we keep talking and and debating the issue, not the messenger, I think we will be able to accomplish a lot of things
Wood: You’re right. There are a lot of different threads to this conversation. If we were to focus on just the family separations, the asylum seekers, this zero-tolerance policy that’s been implemented, [there has been] a lot of discussion over the last few days from politicians and community members from all sides of the political spectrum saying that this needs to end. I’m curious what your take is on what we’re hearing at the border and whether it is something that demands immediate attention.
Morales-LLan: Right, and I guess this family separation notion is nothing else but enforcing the laws that are already on the books. This is a law that was passed and signed in 1997 under the Clinton administration. There was a modification to that law signed into law by President Bush in 2008 and that was bipartisan support. And then there was a modification to that law in 2016, if I remember correctly, through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. So it is nothing but enforcing the law. I guess the flip side to that is what do we want? Do we want lawlessness and open borders? Is that the solution?
Garza: I definitely disagree. As has been mentioned before, I agree that it’s not a new law. The Obama administration deported an unprecedented number of people and we need to continue to be calling on that. Many people called him the deporter in chief, and I agree with that. But then also, this is a new policy that was implemented by this administration, by a message from the attorney general. What it’s causing is all of this separation of families and children being detained. And really the message we are hearing and what it says to us is that families are being held hostage so the agenda of this administration can continue in terms of the continued separation of families, increasing enforcement and separating the families and especially harming children, which is what we are seeing in the last few weeks.
It’s a dangerous message that we’re sending to the country and to the rest of the world, in the sense of what we’re doing with families who are seeking a safe place and refuge from danger.
Morales-LLan: We have a 2000-mile border and along that 2,000-mile border we have 26 points of entry. If families want to apply legally for asylum, they can do so. The problem that we have is people don’t want to go through the legal process. They want to go in between those ports, illegally, and enter into the country. Message? What is the message? We heard many times the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things over and over. And not enforcing the laws is exactly what was causing this problem. It’s sending a message to the world that we have laws, but we can ignore them. And that we have an open borders policy. And as long as they can make it to the board that we will take them in. We can no longer do that. We have to secure our borders.
These families separate themselves. Most of these illegal immigrants coming across the border, they usually come first on their own and then after they are here for some time, they are able to establish themselves, then they send for the children and they pay smugglers to bring them in. And that is a huge problem.
A few years ago there was a documentary, I believe it was produced by MSNBC. It is called “Which Way Home” and relays the story of children from Central and South America who just believe that as soon as they cross the border that everything is like Disneyland, that they will be taken care of, that they would have a home and everything would be fine. And then you see these families breaking apart, these children leaving their homes and really, quite literally, just walking toward the U.S. Some of them climb on top of trains.
And along that process from Central America to the U.S., many of them are killed. Many of these young girls are abused. Some of them die trying to cross the border at the Rio Grande. Some of them die in the desert. Is this the message that we want to send people that yeah, it’s OK, you can come over here and by the way, you may die along the way. Or do we want to tell them, you know what? There’s a legal process. You can apply [for asylum], if that is the case, the case will be heard. If they go legally through the process to one of these ports of entry, their case will be heard and if there are merits for them to come here and to be granted asylum, we will take them in.
Garza: I don’t know how familiar you are with the immigration system. I’m assuming you are since you are an immigrant yourself. But I think that’s a very naive way of seeing the immigration system. Both Republicans [and] Democrats, most people in this country agree that the immigration system is broken. Yes, somebody can show up at a port of entry and claim asylum. The Department of Homeland Security secretary just a few days ago mentioned some people are being turned away because they don’t have the capacity to process so many of the applications.
So we’re asking people who are escaping natural disasters, violence, different very dangerous circumstances in their home country, we’re asking them to wait for months and months and months so they can apply for asylum and we have, like I mentioned, organizations that provide immigration services. For somebody to apply for a family petition for example, it’s taking years and years and years for somebody to go through that process. That’s why our system needs to be reformed, so it’s relevant to our needs as a country and is relevant to economics, is relevant to the globalization that we have.
Another point that I wanted to make, immigration is never going to stop. Whether you build a super high wall and you do whatever you want with the border, immigration is never going to stop because that’s how humans work. Humans, like you and I, past immigrants, we came to this country for better opportunities. A lot of people do that and I am nobody to judge why people move out of their countries to find a better place. I think that is part of our nature as humans, we’re always going to look for the best for ourself and our families.
Wood: I want to make sure that we talk a little bit about this messaging aspect that both of you have touched on. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, when he announced the zero-tolerance policy that all adults entering the border illegally would be prosecuted — and thus resulting in these family separations — he talked about this as a deterrent. And Arturo, you mentioned how we either send a message that the borders are open or we send a message that the borders are closed. Luis, I want to make sure that I get your take on that issue before I circle back to Arturo. But are those the two options that we’re really looking at as far as sending that message out to the world?
Garza: No. I really think the messaging goes to the extreme. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white issue. The borders have never been open. That’s very clear. As I mentioned the system is very complicated, very difficult for people to apply through a legal way. If people come here without documents, it is also very difficult. There’s an assumption that once people are here, like Arturo mentioned, they might be in Disneyland and that’s not the case. We work with immigrant families every single day. Families are going through a lot of hardship and yet they are contributing to this country. They are building the economic infrastructure of this country. We’re building a new airport here in Salt Lake City and ICE comes in and picks off families who are building our infrastructure. That doesn’t make sense and that’s really not reflective of the economic needs of our communities and our country.
When people say it’s either open borders or closed borders, it’s really not. You can develop a system that can allow for people to come in and meet the economic demands but then also to maintain families together, which is a very strong Utah value and that’s something that we all agree on. We don’t want to see families separated because family unity is essential for survival. I think it’s really not a message that I agree with. It’s really not open borders or closed borders. A compromise needs to happen where we meet the reality of our country and our state.
I was in a meeting recently with the restaurant association, hospitality industry, construction leaders, they’re struggling to find workers. So when this administration is proposing closing borders, how are we ever going to meet our demands? The tech industry doesn’t have enough developers. We need immigrants to continue building this country so how are we going to find them?
Moralies-LLan: I guess we can keep going back and forth and trying to lump the entire immigration problem into one thing and demagogue the issues. But the fact of the matter is that — And Luis is referring to a separate issue. Now we’re in the fifth issue and that is the guest worker program — can we do a legal way to have immigrants come over here and work legally? Absolutely, we can. But now that is a fifth issue. I probably will ask Luis what is the solution? You just have open borders? Anybody that shows up to the border, that crosses illegally, we should take them in? We should take everybody, anybody that comes illegally into the country in? Is that the solution?
Wood: Before we have Luis respond to that though, I’m curious, I would assume that the solution isn’t necessarily — and I know we’re mixing issues here — but when we, when we hear these stories about these child camps on the border and these situations they are in, that clearly isn’t the only thing that could be done in the short term. Arturo?
Morales-LLan: We send a message. Every time we allow our borders to be unprotected, we send a message that anybody can come here and break the laws. And these family separation problems happen every single day. Thousands of Americans are taken to jail every single day and they are separated from their families when they break the law. So this is nothing new. But somehow now that this is an illegal immigration issue, now the media jumps on it and wants to get attention to this issue. But this happens everyday. Anybody that breaks the law will be separated from their family.
Morales-LLan: Can you excuse it for a second? Can you let me finish?
Wood: We’ll get to you Luis, I promise.
Morales-LLan: So what is the solution then? Let anybody break the law and then we can keep families together and everybody can keep breaking the law and we live in a country where there’s no laws? There is no rule of law? We live in an anarchy? Is that the solution then?
Wood: Luis, go ahead.
Garza: That’s definitely the opposite of what I said. No, I don’t think the solution is open borders. I don’t think the solution is that anybody that can come in to do whatever they want, like you mentioned. I think the solution is to develop a sensible and a common-sense responsible and compassionate immigration system that allows for people to apply to come to the United States. If they would like to go through the process and become a U.S. citizen, for that to be possible. It is really a matter of sitting down for both parties and really addressing this issue. But the thing is immigration has been used as a political talking point for I don’t know how many elections and so it’s real difficult for both parties to solve this issue when they won’t be able to campaign on it any more.
I think it’s really a matter of sitting down and discussing this issue and addressing it in the long term. I don’t think it’s a matter of opening the borders and letting anybody in. But it’s really about creating a system that works for the country and respects family dignity and human rights.
Wood: You mentioned the media attention. Correct, every day people are arrested, prosecuted, and that results in family separation. If I were to commit a crime, I’d be separated from my family for a period of time. But there are some inherently unique circumstances. My children would not be sent to a camp. They would not be placed in a situation where they’re surrounded by officers who don’t speak the language they speak, with no information coming and going with inadequate representation.
I think we can agree there are inherent circumstances to this issue that are troubling and complicated. To that point though, we’ve gone back and forth a little bit, short term, we have members of the political sphere, the public sphere, calling for this practice of family separation to end now. To both of you, on this issue of family separation, what should be done short term? Not looking at the future potential compromises, but what needs to happen now?
Morales-LLan: Right, and that’s a great question. And again, I like to separate things in different issues. One of them is obviously we have parents that are coming here illegally separating themselves from their families. They get here into the country and they are prosecuted. There is a second group of children that have been brought by smugglers whose parents are already here in the United States illegally and now they are trying to smuggle the children. And then there’s the third group, where a family is traveling together. And again, as long as we keep talking, we will be able to accomplish something. Luis says that he disagrees with the proposal presented by speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Mark Meadows and Congressman Goodlatte, but that is a bill that actually says they can keep families together.
[For] families that are apprehended at the border, illegally, and they are prosecuted, there’s two options for them. One of them, they can apply for asylum. Their case will be heard. Every case where they apply [for asylum] is heard. Now, if there are merits for them to stay, they will be able to stay. But if not, they will be able to send the families together, as families, as a unit, back to their country of origin. Is that, you know, the perfect solution? No. What will be the perfect solution? The perfect solution would be for those families to stay in their home countries.
The United States is a very generous nation. The United States provides millions in aid to all of these poor countries. There is not an accountability to that aid, and that aid should have a merit base. If, these countries, we could hold them accountable. If they want more aid, they should develop more human rights within their own countries, where people are treated safe. They should have more protection and security in their own countries. We would be able to stop all of this problem. But again, we can only take so many into this country. We have our own problems, we have our own crime issues, we have our own unemployment, we have our own families on food stamps. We cannot possibly take everybody in.
So the best way we can do this is that we need to help those poor countries so they can become more stable and their citizens can live with, with dignity.
Wood: Luis, I assume there’s probably several points there you’d like to respond to you.
Garza: Definitely. One of the solutions is to end the family separations now, in the sense of providing a date for people to appear in court, providing a safe place for families to go through the process where they don’t have to put children in cells, and to monitor the families to make sure they are going through the process. But, again, unless the system is reformed there is no way that families can apply for asylum or the families can apply to legalize their status. So the family separations must be put on hold while Congress is trying to address this issue in the long term.
We agree with what Sen. Hatch has been writing on his letter, calling for the administration to end the family separations while they develop this strategy and a bill that will solve this in the long term. This is not something that can be fixed in a couple days, there needs to be more discussion so the solution comes together. In terms of the two bills that are being proposed, we are completely against those because of everything that is included in them. It’s really putting an end to the family-based system of immigration.
Arturo and I were lucky enough that we are already here and who says that we have the right to migrate and other people can not. I think that’s not the right way to think in this. Many times we put the blame on others and I think it’s time to look at ourselves as a country and like the Utah Compact says, which was signed back in 2010, I think the way we treat immigrants says a lot more about us than our immigrant neighbors. And that’s very clear to us. We can take more people in. The food stamp system is overwhelmed and there’s so much homelessness. It’s not a one against the other, it’s really about prioritizing this. Why? Because we need immigration to continue growing. We need more help in the workforce. And yet we need to provide the systems and the venue so people can contribute even more to the community and the economy and the country.
It is a myth when people say that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes because they all do. And it’s a myth that they receive public benefits because they don’t, they don’t qualify for any public benefits. So when people say we don’t have space. It’s not a pie, it can get bigger. We can come together and really address this in a way that makes sense and respects families and humanity and also that is relevant to our current economic realities. It is very clear from all of those industries throughout Utah. There was a report coming out yesterday, our unemployment rate is below 3 percent or at about 3 percent. I really don’t get the rhetoric of “We can’t do this anymore. We are done and we are suffering.” Yes, there’s a lot of people suffering, there’s a lot of homelessness. It doesn’t mean that one has to be against the other. I think it’s an opportunity for us to make a system that works. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed now.
Wood: We started with Luis. Arturo, why don’t you finish us up.
Morales-LLan: Again, if we want to stop family separation, that proposal that we have right now in Congress through the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan and Mark Meadows and Congressman Goodlatte, that is a solution that will keep families together. If that is what we want, to stop family separation, that proposal that we have right now would stop family separation. Longterm again..
Garza: It will not actually.
Morales-LLan: That’s what the proposal says. Basically it reverses the ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of 2016. And that is exactly what it will do. So it will keep families together and they are either approved for asylum or they are sent back to their home country together. But that’s, that’s what it does. Now…
Garza: The bill also allows the government to hold the children and families for months or even years, in conditions that are unknown, or even worse than what is happening right now.
Morales-LLan: That is not correct. That is not correct because we have the Flores settlement act, signed in 1997 by President Clinton. It says they cannot be held for more than 20 days.
Garza: And this bill changes that.
Morales-LLan: So that process of asylum has to be held within 20 days. That’s the bottom line. Again, we have limited resources. I am the beneficiary. I was blessed to have gone through the legal process to be here legally in this country. I know this country is generous. The system is only broken for those who break the laws. And those who break the laws want the system to be fixed so they can keep breaking the laws. If you go through the process, if you do things the right way, there is hope. Is there hope for everybody? Can we take everybody in? No, we cannot take everybody, sadly we cannot. But this is a good country.
Garza: I don’t think that we need to take everybody. Not everyone wants to live in the U.S., it might be a shock for some people, but not everyone wants to live here. It’s really a matter of those families that are already here, what are we going to do with the 11 million people that are here undocumented.
Morales-LLan: OK now we’re into a sixth issue.
Garza: How are we going to provide for [them]?. They are contributing.
Wood: Luis has a point, it is hard to separate these issues out.
Morales-LLan: Now we have a sixth issue, those who are already here. Are we talking about the ones who are already here or are we talking about the ones that are coming in now.
Garza: You keep mentioning how the system is broken for those who are breaking the law. To me that doesn’t make sense. Do you really think that families that are showing up at the border or families that are here undocumented, do you think they are here thinking “Oh I’m breaking the law. I hope they never fix the system and I hope I can continue reaping all the benefits”? What benefits? People are working multiple jobs, they are barely trying to sustain their families, they are working hard, they are sending their children to school, they are trying to learn English.
Morales-LLan: Luis, let me ask you.
Garza: How are families taking advantage of anything? I believe that this government and this administration is taking advantage of families and taking advantage of the workforce of immigrants in this country.
Morales-LLan: Let me ask you Luis, how are they going to work here legally if they don’t have a legal social security [number]. How are they going to do that?
Garza: They need to be provided with that. That’s my point.
Morales-LLan: OK, so…
Garza: They need to have access to a work permit, a social security number, and eventually a pathway to citizenship.
Morales-LLan: That can only happen…
Garza: That’s the way that we will solve this issue, providing a way for people that want to stay here in the longterm to do so. And if they don’t, they can come temporarily and work in agriculture, work in the ski industry, whatever it might be. But for some people it makes sense to be a temporary worker, for others they don’t. Many other countries have a system that is similar to that. I don’t really see how a system that works for our reality cannot be developed.
Wood: We’re ballooning out a little bit, Arturo, final thoughts.
Morales-LLan: That can only happen, what Luis is asking and I fully support, I am in agreement, they need to have a legal social security card, a legal permit to work in the United States. We can have a guest-worker program. Absolutely, I support all of that.
But what he’s describing can only be accomplished if they come here through the legal process.
Wood: Under the current laws. Again I think Luis is speculation about a change in those laws.
Morales-LLan: Again, a guest-worker program is there. Can we modify or should we modify or adapt, modernize that guest-worker program? Absolutely. I believe that the guest-worker program should be something that can be, I guess, be more welcoming whenever we have a strong economy like right now. And perhaps I should say when we have a period of recession or a downturn in the economy there has to be something that can be adjusted.
But I believe that yes, there is a solution. It can happen. But once again, that can only be accomplished if we do things through the legal process. And as long as we can continue to propose measures that are responsible, not only for those that are wanting to come here into the country, but also for those that are living in this country, that we don’t hurt our own workforce. That we don’t hurt our own families that are looking for jobs.
Luis mentioned there is still 3 percent unemployment, well there is unemployment. And that is because there are people that need some of those jobs. So yes, again, I believe in the legal immigration process. I believe in the legal process. We just have to do things in an orderly and lawful fashion. And that’s what it is all about.
Wood: I gotta cut us off there, Luis any quick last thoughts you might want to add in? Arturo had a few minutes there.
Garza: I agree with Arturo. We need to encourage people and make sure people go through legal channels, which means that we need to create that legal channel for families to go through. Right now, there’s not a legal channel that people can go through. The asylum process is broken. The immigration system is broken. That’s why it needs to be fixed, so more families, more people can go through that process.
Morales-LLan: Thank you very much Luis it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I’m sure we will continue to talk and again, let’s continue to debate the issue and not the people. As long as we can continue to talk this way we’ll be able to accomplish a lot of things.
Garza: Yeah, definitely.
Wood: Excellent, Arturo Morales-LLan, Luis Garza, thank you both for being on “Trib Talk” today.
Morales-LLan: Thank you.
Garza: Thank you.
Wood: “Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to email@example.com. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.
We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.