'It was heartbreaking': Lawmaker visits border as crisis impact reaches North Carolina

MISSION, Texas (WTVD) -- U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-NC, visited the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday as the political battles about immigration policies appear to reach yet another climax in a decades-long debate.

"It was heartbreaking for me to think about the plight of these children, and they're coming because the word has gotten out that if the kids make it to our soil, they can stay forever and connect with other family members here and bring other family members over." Hudson, whose district includes Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, told ABC11. "We need people in this country. We have a low birthrate, we need workers, but we need the right kind of workers and we need the legal process for people to follow."

The U.S. government picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported, the largest monthly number ever recorded. Overall, agents detained more than 172,000 migrants -- the highest since 2001.

WATCH: Hope & Desperation: Emergency at the Border

"That's almost equal to the population of the city of Fayetteville in my district," Hudson added. "Democrats are against a wall if it secures our border because (then-President Donald) Trump wanted it, but they're for a wall around the Capitol that protects them. We need to stop playing these games. We need to think about the 5-year-old girl that broke my heart and so many more coming across."

Republican leaders, along with some regional sheriffs and lawmakers, specifically cite the Biden administration's decision to exempt unaccompanied children from pandemic-related powers to immediately expel most people from the country without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum. Children are instead released to "sponsors" in the U.S., usually parents or close relatives while being allowed to pursue their cases in heavily backlogged immigration courts.

The huge increase in children traveling alone -- some as young as 3 -- and families has severely strained border holding facilities, which aren't technically allowed to hold people for more than three days but often do. It has left the government scrambling to find space and hire staff to care for children longer-term until they can be placed with sponsors.

President Trump, responding to a massive increase in Central American families and children that peaked in May 2019, expanded his "Migrant Protection Protocols" policy to force asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court. It was unquestionably effective at deterring asylum -- less than 1% have won their cases, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse -- but asylum-seekers were exposed to violence in Mexico, as documented by advocacy group Human Rights First and others. Attorneys were extremely difficult to find in Mexico.

Other Trump-era policies included fast-track asylum proceedings inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facilities, where access to attorneys was next to impossible. Agreements were struck with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for the U.S. to send asylum-seekers to the Central American countries with an opportunity to seek protection there instead.

President Joe Biden quickly jettisoned those Trump policies, calling them cruel and inhumane, making good on campaign promises. He has kept in place Trump's pandemic-related expulsion powers but exempted children traveling alone. The administration wants Congress to give $4 billion to address root causes of migration in Central America such as poverty and violence, which have driven people to the U.S. for decades, including a surge of children in 2014.

"We can't go down and build an economy down in Guatemala," Hudson countered to ABC11. "We can help Guatemala, we can work with them, but that is a long-term solution. We saw in 1986 with (President Ronald) Reagan 'Amnesty first-security later', we never saw the security. We want to see them done together."

Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the U.S. southern border.

"Needless to say, the work will not be easy," Harris said about her new assignment, which was announced March 24. "But it is important work."

Harris has yet to visit the border to see the situation firsthand.

How the border crisis reaches North Carolina

In new data obtained by the I-Team, 469 refugees moved to North Carolina in 2020 -- seventh-most among U.S. states -- and most come from countries oceans and continents away, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Syria and Ukraine. Only one country in the top five, Guatemala, is in Central America. The data also suggests that based on all refugees resettling in the United States, only a small number of those in North Carolina are aged 14 and younger.

The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, estimates there are 325,000 undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, also a higher number compared to most other states. They could arrive either by sneaking across the border or entering with a temporary visa at a port of entry -- and staying way longer than they're supposed to be here.

"We've seen the idea of walls and borders haven't been effective because of the push and pull factors of migration. We have to address why people are leaving," Kelly Chauvin, an Immigration Services Coordinator at Church World Service (CWS) in Durham, explained to ABC11. "People don't leave their house unless it's the mouth of a shark. In creating regional responsibility and stability you have to look at the main factors of development: health, education and security."

The CWS office in Durham works with 17 different organizations at the border, and Chauvin added that the surge needed to be put in context with policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This surge, although the numbers appear larger, is really the same number of people in a more condensed timeline."

Some say the migrants, moreover, aren't really trying to sneak across the border - they want to be caught and they want their day in court.

"They're asking for protection. They're not trying to circumvent the system," Chauvin argued. "What we've seen at the border isn't a mountain of people crossing the border, it's a huge number of people waiting their turn. With the data it is clear that when people know they have a court date, and an attorney, they will make that court date."
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