Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson recounts trip to U.S.-Mexico border, where she toured a ‘broken’ immigration system

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson talks about what she learned on her recent experience at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said she witnessed firsthand that the U.S. immigration system is "broken." Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

As Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson listened to a briefing during a Customs & Border Patrol tour at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday, her eyes drifted over to a young boy at a nearby passport processing station.

He was her son’s age, around 14 years old, and had approached alone with a Colorado birth certificate and no passport.

“He was scared,” Wilson recounted at a news conference Thursday, holding back tears as she described the experience. “I don’t know his story. I never will. Was that a doctored birth certificate? Was he returning to a family? … I have no idea what happened to that little boy.”

His was one of hundreds of cases she witnessed during the course of her 24-hour visit to the border with the Utah Association of Counties, she said. But it was one that stuck with her the most as she imagined her own children in a similar situation.

“I went down there as a policymaker mayor but had to take my mother self,” she said later. “Not knowing his story before or his future as a mother was really moving to me.”

During the trip, Wilson and a handful of other county leaders from across the country — including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Texas, Washington state and Wisconsin — saw behind-the-scenes processing of people seeking asylum who were stopped at the port of entry, witnessed a makeshift day care holding families prior to processing and even watched Border Patrol agents apprehend a family as they attempted to cross from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso.

The county paid for the visit, which Wilson characterized as the “best $1,000 the county has spent,” arguing that her firsthand experience at the border will help her better serve a large and growing Latino constituency and to advocate for policies that could help mitigate the impacts of federal immigration policies on the county.

“We all know the immigration system is broken and I saw it with my own eyes,” she told reporters Thursday. “This tour was informative, heartbreaking and enlightening and I think it will better prepare me as a mayor for the future and re-engage me on a true attempt of being a partner on solutions.”

Wilson said she disagrees with President Donald Trump’s decision to hold asylum seekers in Mexico rather than in the United States — a policy the administration has lauded as a way to restore order to the immigration process and stem overcrowding in United States facilities as migrants wait for their day in U.S. immigration court.

Opponents, however, argue the United States has turned its back on vulnerable asylum seekers. And several national news outlets have highlighted a lack of legal representation for migrants detained as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program, which took effect at the beginning of this year.

Wilson, who visited a refugee center on the Mexico side of the border during her trip Wednesday, commended the nongovernmental agencies and nonprofits who run it but described the federal policy as a “failure” and “basically us passing the buck.”

“We have asked one of the poorest countries in the [world] not to take care of their own people but to take care of the other refugees from surrounding areas,” she said.

The mayor also said she believes work needs to be done to ensure the system moves faster to get court dates for asylum seekers sooner than eight or nine months out, which was the time frame she heard from Border Patrol agents. She also advocated for the creation of a special federal envoy to work on immigration and identified the need to get beyond “finger pointing” and partisanship to find real solutions.

“Even the most hardened conservative among us [on the trip] — and we got to know that in the beginning in our early interaction and asking questions together as a group before we departed — even he recognized and expressed a recognition that his impressions were wrong,” she said.

Conservative Utah has long been welcoming to immigrants, possibly because the state is home to a majority of residents who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith’s early members faced discrimination and were driven from state to state until settling in the Salt Lake Valley.

Salt Lake County officials have criticized the federal government for its inaction on immigration and have worked to implement policies that support inclusivity. It was the first county in the United States to be officially certified by Welcoming America, a national organization that promotes diverse communities, and has created programming to help naturalize the thousands of eligible residents in Salt Lake County.

Earlier this year, the majority-Republican County Council passed a resolution calling on Utah’s congressional delegation to push a number of immigration reforms. They advocated for stronger border security but also called on the federal government to halt family separation policies, increase the number of work visas for immigrants in the United States and address the uncertainty facing those who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.

And her visit to the border happened to coincide with Welcoming Week, an annual series of concerts, parades and exhibits to celebrate new immigrants and refugees that is co-hosted by the county.

“I participate as much as I can not just in sharing my priority that we remain a welcoming entity but additionally that we are helping solve problems,” she said. “So I think what I do want to share in this welcoming week is that we’ll do everything we can to back that value up with action and help for solutions and support.”