Coffman: ‘Much worse’ problems unfolding at the Mexican border

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AURORA | The situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is much worse than Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman originally thought it was., he said after visiting the region this weekend.

Coffman’s assessment comes after a trip to El Paso, Texas on Saturday, adding that President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall would be of virtually no help.

The congressman visited border security officials and a nearby detention center that houses children, some of which have been separated from their parents — the consequence of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy from the Trump Administration.

A near crisis developed last week as lawmakers and the public became outraged at the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from parents as the cross the U.S. border outside of American crossing ports.

While the facility Coffman and a group of five other congress members visited in Tornillo was well-maintained and mostly held unaccompanied minors trying to cross into the United States, Coffman said he saw a much larger problem at the border.

“The president talks about the wall or his border security ideas, (but) looking at the current situation, I just don’t know how it’d make a difference,” Coffman told the Sentinel Sunday. “What these families are doing now is they’re coached in terms of political asylum. All you have to do is state that you have a credible fear about being in your country, and it could be the violence — it can’t be economic, it has to be a credible fear — and then you have to be adjudicated through the legal system.”

The problem, he said, is that getting through that system takes about two years because of the number of backlogged cases.

“Everybody is using that, so it doesn’t really matter what you put up at the border. The wall is mostly replacing a wall that’s there now, and it’s a plus-up of border patrol and a plus-up in technology,” Coffman said. “I think there has to be a change in these laws to figure out who really does fit under political asylum.”

Ultimately, Coffman said more resources are needed at the border to address asylum seekers.

The facility Coffman visited at Tornillo houses kids who were seeking asylum, he said. Most all of them were from Central American countries and appeared to be about 15 years old.

Twenty-three children, of about the same age, were separated from parents. Three had been reunited, Coffman said. He said he asked the kids about the facility, what the food was like and whether they got to call home — they said they did.

The children sleep in cots in air-conditioned tents, Coffman said. They’d gather in the common area to watch the World Cup on television.

Coffman said he thought the conditions to “be very good.”

But in reuniting children with their families, Coffman said he’d like to see somebody take charge of that because “it is so fragmented. It is so confusing.”

“I was never in a room or meeting with all the players there because there’re so many,” he said, highlighting border patrol, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

U.S. Customs and Immigration said Friday that 50 parents are being held at its detention center in Aurora. Spokesman Carl Rusnok said he didn’t have any more details about how long those people had been held at the center, which is run by a private contractor, the GEO Group.

Immigration attorneys say they’ve been working to get parents released on bond as they try to reunite with their children.

Coffman said he plans to visit the facility soon.

“The question now becomes how long it will take to reunite these families, but I think there are bigger problems unfolding,” Coffman said. “The policy is just not working, so how do you get a coherent policy where it’s humanitarian but you’re regulating who comes across the border?”

What’s next for the immigration discussion is largely unknown, as Coffman said the message Trump delivers behind closed doors and on Twitter are conflicting.

“We (House GOP and Trump) had a meeting a week ago and he told us how important this was to get it done. And then he turns around and tweets when we’re making progress on a more moderate bill.”

Trump said on Twitter House GOP members should “stop wasting their time” on immigration reform and wait until November to take it back up.

Lawmakers are preparing for a vote this week. But if that fails, Coffman said a group of bipartisan lawmakers dubbed “the problem solvers” will continue to work on immigration.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.