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U.S. Needs To Focus On Root Cause Of Migration Crisis, Rep. Torres Says


The numbers are the highest they have been in years. U.S. Customs and Border Protection say more than 103,000 people tried to cross the southern border into the United States last month. The sheer volume of migrants is overwhelming the U.S. government on the southern border, and amid this swell, President Trump is purging the top ranks of the Department of Homeland Security. He's also promising to cut off aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Representative Norma Torres is a Democrat from California who was born in Guatemala before coming to the U.S. She's the only member of Congress who was born in Central America, and she joins us in our studio in Washington this morning.

Congresswoman, thank you so much for coming in.

NORMA TORRES: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So these numbers seem to grow more and more by the day. What do you attribute this to right now?

TORRES: Well, I attribute that to many issues, but mostly I blame the Trump administration for failing to follow up on the good work that had already been established by the Obama administration. When we were addressing the root causes of migration and dealing with those very, very corrupt governments in the Northern Triangle, you know, Vice President Biden at the time flew down to the region constantly, every other month at least, and met with the Northern Triangle presidents directly. They came to the U.S. and met with him here often. So there was always an agenda on how to move things forward and address the deep-rooted issues of not just public corruption but the gang violence and the lack of economic development in the region.

GREENE: Many of the forces that are driving people to come. Can you just explain to Americans who would ask why it's the responsibility of the United States to improve conditions in countries like this?

TORRES: No. 1, I think from, you know, a perspective of our national security, we better be paying attention to democracy and the rule of law and how all of those things are eroding within our region. And these are our closest neighbors to the south - Mexico and the Northern Triangle. So we better care about that because we cannot - we simply cannot put a border at our southern wall - I mean, a wall at our southern border - and think that that is going to be the solution. That is just a Band-Aid. People will continue to come, and we will have more deaths on our hands if we don't focus on the region.

GREENE: Can you remind me of your own story and why your family decided to come to the U.S.?

TORRES: Yes. So I was born in Guatemala, and I can't imagine, David, what my parents, you know, might have been going through when they decided that it was safer for me for them to send me to the U.S. to live with my father's oldest brother, my uncle. My story is like many of those children at the border. They're trying to reunite with their family. It's heartbreaking. During my time, thank God that America was not closed. Thank God that they opened their arms and I was able to succeed and go to school and learn the language and embrace the culture, which is what these people want to do when they get here - to be able to work and be able to live another day. Circumstances at times might have changed a little bit. There's maybe no longer a civil war, but the war in the streets between gangs, between narco traffickers - the public corruption is still there, and those are the issues that we need to focus on.

GREENE: When we had a reporting team last week in El Paso, we spoke to some of the migrant families coming. Some of them said they were fleeing violence, without a doubt, but some told us it was just extreme poverty, saying they just wanted to give their kids a better life. For Americans who look around our own country and see poverty, can you just explain why people who are looking for a better life - economic migrants - should be considered for asylum here?

TORRES: Right. The poverty we see here in our own communities, you know, in comparison to the poverty that has been caused by climate change issues, severe droughts in the region, the fact that there is no infrastructure for the indigenous populations, you know, to get, you know, any of their merchandise to market - they have major issues of stunting because of poor malnutrition. These are the reasons why we have people coming from the highlands in Guatemala. If we were to follow, you know, the president's orders and stop sending aid to Central America, imagine what we will see when the youth in the inner cities begin to not get the assistance they need - education programs, job training programs, and just, you know, help with everyday living that they need in the region. When you allow their elected officials to be so corrupt, there's not enough money to pay for the services that they need.

GREENE: Congresswoman Norma Torres is a Democratic representative from Congress from California who was born in Guatemala. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

TORRES: Thank you so much, David.

GREENE: I want to turn to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who has covered the debate over immigration in this country for years as it has been going on. Mara, as you listen to that conversation, what do you take away?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, we're having a debate in this country about how open the United States should be to people who are fleeing economic problems not just civil war. As the congresswoman just said, the civil war in Guatemala is over. But all - lots of things that force people to flee are still there, whether it's crime and violence and poverty. But the president the other day said, quote, "we can't take you anymore. Our country is full. We can't take you anymore. I'm sorry." So, you know, he believes there's really no room for anyone else, even though we're facing a looming labor shortage. But that's the debate going on right now. How many people should the U.S. take in? What should be the criteria?

GREENE: And it seems like both sides in this debate are only, I mean, taking more to their extreme views and playing to their bases, right? I mean, there's a lot of turnover right now in the Trump administration. Today's the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's last day. She tweeted that her acting deputy secretary, Claire Grady, has offered to resign. Like, the president is looking for a tougher policy, not looking for somewhere to meet in the middle.

LIASSON: No, he's not looking to make a deal with Congress, even though he says it's the Democrats' fault for not changing the laws to make it easier to prevent asylum-seekers from getting asylum. But what he wants is bureaucratic changes in the Department of Homeland Security. That's why he's doing this personnel housecleaning. He wants to toughen up the criteria for credible fear - in other words, what asylum-seekers have to prove to get asylum. He thinks that DHS officials have a reflexive tendency to believe asylum-seekers. He also wants immigration officials to give fewer work permits to people in the asylum process. He thinks that will cut down on the surge.

GREENE: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.