07/09/2014 07:32 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

Border Backlog Crisis

JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

In all the fulminating going on about the children in the current border "crisis," there is one problem I have yet to hear addressed, by either side in the debate. Mostly, I suspect, because it would cost a lot of money to fix. Americans who are unfamiliar with the problems immigrants face and who have never personally had to deal with an immigrant can be excused for not even being aware this problem exists. Conjuring up gauzy images of Ellis Island, such Americans wonder: "Why don't the immigrants follow the law and come in legally?" One of the big answers to that question is the monumental backlog they face. A backlog it would take a lot of political effort -- and a whole lot of money -- to fix.

Just look at the current political debate to see how hard this problem would be to truly solve. President Obama has deported more people than any other U.S. president. Just ask the immigration reform groups who represent Latinos -- they'll tell you, in no uncertain terms, that Obama is the "Deporter-in-Chief." For all this effort (which has cost Obama a lot of political capital with one of his key support demographics) he gets precisely no credit from his political opponents. Under Obama, the Border Patrol's budget has grown enormously. The bipartisan Senate immigration bill would have doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. But, to listen to Republicans, the federal government is doing absolutely nothing about border security, and Obama has actually made things worse.

I'm not sure if this is an ideological disconnect on the Republicans' part, since it boils down to a reality they are often uncomfortable admitting: government services cost money. Why, after all, have we had precisely zero detailed plans from the House of Representatives on how to achieve the total border lockdown they so desperately crave? They've had years to come up with some such plan, and early on they announced they'd be passing it separately from any "comprehensive immigration reform" bill. So where is the House plan to secure the border? Where's the "enforcement-only, moats-and-alligators" Republican plan?

It doesn't exist. This could be due to Republican infighting or ineptitude, of course, but that's a stretch because pretty much all of them are on board with the basic concept of shutting the border down as tightly as is humanly and technologically possible. The problem, I suspect, is the price tag. Flooding the border with what would essentially be an occupying force would not come cheap. There's nothing to stop Congress from passing a budget which would provide 24/7 coverage of the border in a ratio of one agent per mile (or per thousand yards, or whatever). This isn't an impossible problem to solve. But it would be incredibly expensive to do so.

Obama has just asked Congress for $3.7 billion (a pretty paltry amount, as federal budgets go), and already they're balking. What would they do if he asked for hundreds of billions to completely shut down the border? This, in a nutshell, is why we have yet to see any Republican plan to do so -- because they simply don't want to pay for such an effort.

But Democrats aren't blameless in this debate either. Because there's another problem independent of the border, and Democrats don't seem all that interested in solving it -- again, likely because it would take so much money to do so.

This is where we return to that Ellis Island imagery. Many Americans have an idea that legally immigrating to this country is just a matter of waiting in a line and then answering a few questions -- the way it used to be. Given this picture, it's easy to wonder why anyone would undertake a dangerous border crossing and then an undocumented existence in America. But the image is wildly out of date. Because while legal immigrants do in fact follow the same basic framework, they must wait in a horrendously long line to do so.

In the recent scandal at the V.A. hospitals, the American public was shocked at the waiting times veterans faced. Averages of over 100 days were reported, with some individual horror stories of having to wait years. Now, the two situations are not comparable in any other way, I merely bring them up to compare timelines. Because some people who have followed every American immigration law and legally applied to become American residents have been waiting over two decades to have that hearing and be welcomed in to the United States. These people are not allowed to move to America during this wait, either -- it is supposed to happen in their home country.

Now, just for a minute, imagine how you would feel if you called up a government agency (Social Security, perhaps) and were told: "Well, let's see when you can have an appointment... how does 2035 sound?" Just imagine hearing that. Puts all those motor vehicle department jokes in perspective, doesn't it? One of the Republican positions on immigration reform is that the 11 million people here already should not have any "special path to citizenship" and should instead "go to the back of the line." That line is over 20 years long, though -- this is the part they never admit.

Some immigrants in differing categories have shorter waits. But even in the fastest categories (such as the new spouse of an American citizen, for example), it can routinely take years to even get an appointment. This is not your great-granddad's Ellis Island, folks. The only other federal agency I've even heard of with such insane paperwork backlogs (and problems) is the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Exactly what it would take to fix the backlog I do not know, beyond "a lot more political attention and a lot more money." Would quadrupling the number of officials who handle this paperwork be enough? Would it require ten times more? I have no idea. But whatever the magic number of immigration officials necessary, it's not going to come cheap.

The problem, however, is never going to even be addressed until the media and the public decides it is worthy of the "scandal" or "crisis" label. If there was a hue and cry with plenty of people weeping on camera, perhaps the political will could be found to even start talking about the problem. The answer to the question "why don't people come here legally?" is obvious -- because they have to wait over twenty years to do so. Now imagine that a lot of money was thrown at this backlog, to the point that it fell to even "two or three years." That's a much more reasonable and humanitarian time to wait, just for the chance to have your case heard. People considering the costs and benefits of legal immigration to America versus illegal immigration would have a whole different set of facts. Waiting a couple of years is one thing, but waiting twenty-plus years is a whole different prospect.

The immigration backlog problem will never be solved, though, if it continues never to even be addressed in the political arena. Immigrants don't vote, after all, until they fully complete the process of becoming citizens (once you are granted citizenship, you never have to deal with the immigration service ever again). To put this another way, the only constituents dealing with this problem are family members of people going through it -- none of whom are eager to complain to the government about poor service, in fear of their petition being denied.

In the current situation, media references to the backlog (such as they exist) are always rather oblique: "The children are released to family members until their case is heard, which often takes years." No emphasis on why it takes years -- it is just mentioned in passing. Now, I'm not saying that fixing this problem would do anything about the current problem at the border with children, and I'm not saying this is an answer to everything that is broken about immigration law -- not by a long shot. But I do wish the backlog was at least a subject for discussion in the whole immigration debate. Currently, Republicans want a border that is completely secure, but they certainly don't want to pay for it (they don't even seem willing to pay a few billion to fix the current problem with the children). Democrats insist that any legislation passed include a path to citizenship for the people already here. But when this was being discussed, I think the shortest pathway I heard was 13 years long. And nothing much was said about fixing the path that was already 20-plus years long. Fixing the backlog should be a centerpiece of any immigration reform, but so far nobody's willing to champion the idea and nobody's willing to pay what it would take. Maybe if the media started calling it a "crisis" Congress might start working on an actual fix.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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