McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As Congress debates ways to cut spending in order to pass a stop-gap spending measure by month’s end to keep the federal government running, immigration costs and ways to deter migrants are being hotly debated among party lines.

But during an Immigration Law and Policy Conference held Monday in Washington, D.C., a top leader for the Department of Homeland Security, and several panelists, said immigration reform is really what congressional leaders should be focusing on right now.

“There are things that we, the federal government, really can’t pay for, and that we rely on local partners to pay for. And obviously, all those partnerships and systems are under an enormous strain right now. I mean, I’ll be honest, I view these as the costs of just our fundamentally broken immigration system,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant secretary for Border and Immigration Policy at DHS, told the conference.

Blas Nuñez-Neto, DHS assistant secretary for Border and Immigration Policy, spoke Sept. 18, 2023, at the Immigration Law and Policy Conference.

“We’re doing our best to try to address some of these infirmities in the system,” he said. “But we’re never going to solve it without meaningful work in Congress.”

Nuñez-Neto defended the Biden administration’s Title 8 lawful pathways program, which replaced Title 42 asylum restrictions that were lifted in May.

Under Title 8, migrants must apply for asylum interviews using the CBP One app and must enter the Southwest border through legal ports of entry. Those caught illegally entering will be turned back and not allowed to return for five years, and possibly 20.

“We believe quite strongly that individuals have a right to asylum in this country. We are prepared to offer safe and orderly means for people to come and our access the asylum system, but we can’t allow individuals to cross unlawfully at the border and the numbers that we have seen over the last few years and so we have put in place measures to channel those flows into more orderly processes,” he said.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers were apprehended by Border Patrol on April 25, 2023, in Brownsville, Texas, days before the lifting of Title 42. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Nuñez-Neto touted some parole programs offered to asylum-seekers from certain countries, like Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba, as well as asylum processing centers set up in several Central American countries that allow migrants an opportunity to safely file claims in other countries, called Safe Mobility Offices. These offices also allow asylum-seekers the option of filing claims for not only U.S. asylum, but for asylum in other countries like Canada and Spain.

“We are clear-eyed that it is unlikely that Congress will move. We will continue to push for congressional action and try to put the onus on Congress, which is where, quite frankly, I think it belongs here. But we’re also committed to working within our statutes in innovative ways to try to provide more lawful access to the country,” he told the day-long conference, which was co-sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and Georgetown Laws School.

Several panelists mentioned actions by Republican-led states, like Texas, which have taken immigration policy issues into their own hands.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks Jan. 30, 2023, to the media before a section of state-funded border wall being built in Los Indios, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Texas has appropriated over $5 billion for Operation Lone Star, under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott. Since 2021, Texas has bused nearly 38,000 migrants to these cities: New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles.

The state also is building several sections of border wall, including a new section in Del Rio, and has put a $1 million 1,000-foot-long string of border buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, as well as miles of razor wire on the riverbanks.

“We need to find ways that we can take the keys away from Abbott, and this administration needs to start working with cities and localities and do its own transportation,” Angela Kelley, chief adviser of policy and partnerships, for the American Immigration Lawyers Assoc., told the conference.

The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration reform — the Immigration Reform and Control Act — was in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic-led Congress.

“It’s unprecedented,” Nuñez-Neto said. “Our immigration system was last updated by Congress decades ago.”

Congress has until the end of the month to pass a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. The proposal unveiled Sunday night would cut discretionary spending in all agencies by 8%, except for the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs. But that includes cuts to Border Patrol, DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to The Hill.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at