The people working to reform the US immigration system are as multi-faceted as the problems we face.

That is one of the key takeaways from my time hearing — and learning — from so many of those whose lives are affected by the issues on our southern border.

When I visited with border patrol agents, volunteers, business owners, and residents of McAllen, Texas, I spoke with them about the problems they face daily. What moved me most was how much we really aren’t told about the problems at the border. Most politicians see this problem as a political football — one they can campaign on, fire up their base, and reliably use in a fundraising email. It is a crisis where a solution exists, but there’s no incentive to fix it.

What you won’t hear are the stories of people on the ground. Border patrol officers see their jobs being used as a talking point, but they still go to work every day to keep us safe knowing that their jobs come with very real personal risks. Similarly, cable news shows won’t tell you that the wall isn’t actually at the border — at times it’s a mile into United States territory and by the time migrants arrive there they have been in the United States for some time. Then there are the partial truths: you hear that cartels are in complete control of the southern border, but depending on your news source, you might not hear that the heartbreaking human trafficking operations are enabled by the United States’ broken legal immigration system.

These stories — coupled with the staggering statistics regarding our southern border — reveal an outdated immigration system that incentivizes illegal immigration while failing to meet the challenges of ever-changing migration patterns. With 10.7% of NC’s workforce being comprised of immigrants, including 18.3% of the STEM labor force, North Carolina’s economy is directly impacted by getting immigration reform right.

US Border Patrol agents apprehended over 130,000 migrants at the southwestern border in July. This makes July the 28th month in a row where southwestern border apprehensions were over 100,000. Seven months of the Biden presidency have seen apprehensions over 200,000. In contrast, between FY 2008 and February 2021, just one month saw apprehensions over 100,000. Correlated with these increases in migration are upticks in those who would exploit the vulnerabilities at our southern border. Last fiscal year, the Border Patrol reported it apprehended 98 individuals who appeared on a terrorist watch list. The previous fiscal year? 16. And it has taken another 70 such individuals into custody since October 2022. 

This is why any serious immigration reform should prioritize enhancing US border security in a comprehensive fashion: walls in strategic locations to better influence migration patterns, improved technology to gather better data and know who is coming and who is leaving through our ports of entry, and more — a lot more — personnel to enforce our immigration laws and adjudicate visa and asylum claims.

What I learned from my trip is that there are several solutions to deal with increasing numbers at the border. For example, establishing at least four regional processing centers in high-traffic areas would prepare us to better deal with migrant influxes, and improving coordination between the Department of Homeland Security, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations would help alleviate the pressure on already-overwhelmed border towns.

As for processing problems and reducing our system’s mountainous backlogs, there are creative ideas to address these, too. Obviously, it starts with staffing. We can and should test out pilot programs that would streamline asylum screenings and adjudications without sacrificing due process.

However, underneath the willingness to break US immigration law and risk eventual arrest and deportation is human desperation. Immigrating legally to the US is a complicated, years-long task that involves navigating byzantine systems of court appearances and paperwork — often in a second language. Coming up with new programs and streamlining systems to make it easier for hopeful immigrants to come here will encourage more people to take the legal approach. It will reduce surges at the border and make it easier for border security to determine who is coming to the US for a better life and who is coming with ill intentions.

Taken together, these policy solutions would do what our government hasn’t been able to do for nearly 40 years: modernize our immigration system in a way that allows the government to focus on safety and security while encouraging those people who want to use their talent and potential for the betterment of America to come to our shores.