As the U.S. Congress struggles to agree on a package of immigration reform measures, the Democratic governors of nine states have added their voices to the call for action.
In a letter directed to President Joe Biden and both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, the governors said decisive action is needed to support states that are increasingly unable to cope with the volume of immigrants they have been receiving in recent months.
The letter demands the leaders make "a serious commitment" to improving a national immigration system that is "outdated and unprepared to respond" to a recent surge in migrants across the southern border.
The list of governors calling for assistance includes the leaders of Arizona, California and New Mexico — three states directly on the southern border. Their letter echoes the complaints of leaders in Republican-led Texas, which has a longer border with Mexico than the rest of the border states combined, and has been demanding increased federal assistance for years.
However, several of the governors who signed the letter are from states far from the southern border, including Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, signaling that the stress of increased levels of immigration is being felt nationwide.
Record number of arrivals
Record numbers of migrants have been attempting to cross the border in recent months, with as many as 300,000 making the journey in December alone. Of those crossing, the overwhelming majority are doing so outside of designated entry points, hoping either to enter the country undetected or to claim asylum immediately on apprehension.
Because U.S. law allows individuals who make asylum claims to have their eligibility assessed before they are turned back, many thousands of these migrants are released into the country on "parole," sometimes with instructions to show up for immigration court hearings scheduled years later.
This leaves migrants to seek food and shelter in communities throughout the United States. While many remain near the border, thousands fan out into the interior of the country, often assisted by Republican leaders who have begun to charter buses and airplanes to deliver homeless migrants to cities in states seen as Democratic strongholds.
In their letter, the governors said the scope of the current problem must be met with a concerted federal response.
"The sustained arrival of individuals seeking asylum and requiring shelter and assistance, due to lack of Congressional action on infrastructure and policies, can only be addressed with federal organizational support and funding to meet the public safety and humanitarian needs of our local communities," they wrote.
"States and cities cannot indefinitely respond to the subsequent strain on state and local resources without congressional action," they said. "Communities along the southern border — as well as interior states and cities across the country — lack the vast coordinated infrastructure needed to respond to the humanitarian and public safety concerns of those seeking lawful entry into the United States."
New York in focus
New York Governor Kathy Hochul took the lead in organizing the letter. Her state, and New York City in particular, has been the target destination of thousands of migrants and has been increasingly struggling with the burden.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has in recent months instituted rules limiting the time and place where buses carrying migrants are allowed to discharge their passengers, in order to organize support services and to prevent migrants from being left stranded with no resources in the middle of winter.
Mario Russell, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a New York-based think tank, told VOA that the state has been experiencing a "significant and impactful number of migrants and asylum-seekers coming to its communities — to New York City and throughout the state — so, this is something that the governor, obviously, is having to respond to."
Russell, who has worked in immigration policy for 25 years, said the people currently arriving in the city typically have the same limited resources as refugees from natural disasters or war.
When they arrive, "They are being put into a system that is old, frail, degraded and under-resourced," he said.
In the United States, migration over the southern border has historically been driven by people in Mexico and Central America seeking opportunity in the north. However, in their letter, the governors note that the current surge in migration is a global phenomenon being driven not just by poverty and repression in the Americas, but by events thousands of miles away, including the war in Ukraine, strife in Africa and turmoil in the MIddle East.
In a recent study, the Migration Policy Institute confirmed that the basic contours of migration to the U.S. have changed in recent years.
"Heightened levels of spontaneous migration have become a new norm across the Western Hemisphere, reflecting growing displacement that is fueled by political instability, violence, slow post-COVID-19 economic recovery, human rights abuses, poverty, and climate events," the report found.
"Due to increased unprecedented refugee flows globally, we are at an all-time high of forced migration — as measured by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — as we have ever seen in the history of recorded refugee flows," Greg Chen, senior director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA. "Well over 100 million people are currently displaced."
Chen continued, "What that means is that Congress and the administration urgently need to ensure that there is a more orderly and efficient process for managing the border, and also a system that can rapidly and fairly review requests by migrants to get protection when they arrive at the border.
"For those that are eligible for asylum, they should be given protection to be able to stay here, quickly. And for those who are not eligible for protection, there should be a process that is safe and humane, that returns them to their home country," he said.
Congressional progress in question
In Congress, the stakes of the immigration reform debate are extremely high because Republicans have insisted that aid packages worth tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine and Israel will not move forward without progress on the border.
There appears to be a bipartisan effort underway in the Senate to craft a wide-ranging immigration bill that would provide new resources to help federal officials cope with the inflow of migrants. Reports indicate that Democrats are also willing to accept a bill that makes it easier for the government to deport individuals who do not have valid asylum claims.
While senior Republican senators have urged their fellow party members to support the effort, it is unclear whether a bill that clears the Senate would survive the House of Representatives. In the House, a small but powerful minority of Republican lawmakers are opposed to additional funding for Ukraine and have indicated that they do not want to give Biden a "win" by passing immigration reform legislation during a presidential election year.