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Durbin: Migrant deaths in Texas a ‘Uvalde moment’ for immigration reform

The deaths of more than 50 migrants in a truck outside San Antonio are galvanizing calls to reform an immigration system that many say shares blame in the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday told Politico that he hopes the tragedy will spur legislative action in the same way the May mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, led to the first major federal legislation on gun safety in decades.

“We’ve been talking the last couple days about reviving that effort,” Durbin told Politico on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid. 

“And I think what happened at the border with finding 51 dead migrants in that tractor trailer is what I would call a ‘Uvalde moment.’ I hope it sparks an interest in finding a bipartisan approach to dealing with immigration.”

Durbin has for more than two decades led the push for major immigration reform in the Senate, though little has come of it.

But the Illinois senator has been meeting this year with GOP Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) and fellow Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla (Calif.) to hash out an outline for a potential bipartisan immigration solution.

Those talks were briefly interrupted by gun safety talks that led to the bill signed by President Biden on Saturday.

The Uvalde mass shooting and the migrant deaths in San Antonio shook a small sense of optimism into a political class that had all but given up on the deeply partisan issues of immigration and gun safety.

Similar to gun safety, each party has different views on the causes and solutions that brought about the migrants’ deaths.

Democrats and immigration advocates largely blame the quasi-militarized border and slow immigration system for creating an artificial bottleneck that benefits smugglers

“We cannot ignore the human tragedy and gruesome deaths of 50 migrants found in the back of [a] tractor-trailer in San Antonio,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement.

“How many more human rights cruelties will our nation endure before we finally address our broken immigration system? The mass deaths of migrants seeking refuge in our country, regardless of immigration status, is nothing less than a national tragedy. It’s ​a blatant reminder of the ​continued costs of militarized borders and xenophobic policies,” Grijalva added.

But many Republicans contend an “open border” brought on by Biden’s policies is being exploited by organized crime.

“Biden says he’s doing everything possible to stop human smuggling. That’s a lie. What happened in San Antonio is a tragedy & it’s not going to stop until Biden enforces our immigration laws. As he does nothing, Texas will continue to secure our border,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted on Wednesday.

That division, and the politicization of border security, will complicate any bipartisan deal on the matter.

Still, the secret to the gun safety bill’s success was to set a low bar that would be acceptable to both parties.

While big issues on immigration like border wall construction or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants are unlikely to be on the table, both the immigration system and border security are rife with technicalities that could be politically safe to address.

Meanwhile, migrant deaths are spiking at the border: Border Patrol found 557 migrant remains in 2021, and 2022 is gearing up to be an even deadlier year.

“While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not reported official border-wide deaths data since 2020 (despite a legal requirement to do so), partial information points to this being the worst year yet,” wrote Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America.

The San Antonio incident — far from the first case of migrants suffocating in a smuggler’s vehicle — joins a spate of drownings, exposure deaths and falls from the border wall as the main causes of death and injury to migrants.

According to Isacson, the main culprit is the 1990s-vintage “prevention through deterrence” mantra that guides CBP operations.

“As current migration statistics show, this policy didn’t reduce migration. But it caused the number of migrant deaths to explode, first in deserts east of San Diego in California, and in Arizona, then later in Texas,” Isacson wrote.

Any political negotiation will further be complicated by the need for international cooperation.

Top U.S., Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran officials met Wednesday at the Mexican Embassy in Washington to hash out an agreement to coordinate the investigation and assistance to bereaved families.

Still, the issue is certain to create more friction on migration between the United States and its closest southern neighbors.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is due to visit Biden on July 12, and he has already said he will bring up migrant safety.

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