On May 13, 2023, an Ecuadorian mother waits with her daughter for help from volunteers at a makeshift camp between the U.S.-Mexico border walls in San Diego, California. They had traveled for 15 days from Ecuador with four other women and had been waiting in the camp for two days. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Editor's Note: Alberto Gonzales was the 80th U.S. Attorney General and advisor to the president in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University School of Law and serves on the advisory board of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- There are places on our southern border that change us, images that force us to deal with ourselves. I stopped on a cliff and the 500,000-square-kilometer Chihuahuan Desert stared at me, wondering why we stained its sand with the blood of children.

Why do we turn our backs on the suffering of our brothers and sisters who go into the heat and leave their lives and dreams in its canyons? Why do we tolerate an immigration system that punishes the desperate and the patient alike while at the same time failing to provide enough legal workers to America or effective border security?

Why do immigrants keep shouting, "No, no, I'm staying here. I'm going to try to get through"? These questions lead me to believe that we must come together as one country and commit to a solution that secures our border and respects the rule of law and the humanity of all people.

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Our long-standing task is to unify and pass comprehensive immigration reform, and to do so now, including for Congress to accept reasonable proposals to improve border security as part of a broader foreign aid package. This small commitment can lay a solid foundation for a larger plan.


So far, I've drawn my own lines in the sand. For example, I discarded ideas such as building a long and expensive border wall and deploying our Army. I believed that a wall sent the wrong message to our neighbors and was a waste of money. I feared that our military, trained to kill the enemy, would do just that to unarmed immigrant families whom they mistook for criminals, terrorists, or cartel members. In the past, I've disrupted discussions about these types of measures and blocked opportunities for engagement, preferring more border agents and technology like cameras and motion sensors.

Today, however, we are in crisis, compounded by a legislative impasse that neither heeds the cries of migrants fleeing violence nor voters' desires for reasonable limits on entry. Our communities are overwhelmed by immigrants and their needs, especially as states near the border continue to bus newcomers north.

The ideas we have considered have not yet materialized into solutions. So I've challenged myself to be open to other possibilities, at least during this crisis. As former Senator Howard Baker said, "The other may be right," and so far, the inflexible ideological positions of both political parties have been proven wrong. Americans agree.

In a recent poll by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy, 80% of respondents expressed support for legislative engagement even when challenging real-world scenarios are included.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to establish a "uniform rule of naturalization," i.e., immigration policy. Under normal circumstances, the president is limited by the immigration tools that Congress gives him in the form of legislation.

Today, however, the situation at the border has reached a breaking point. We must take control.

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The conclusion I've come to is that the president may have to resort to his emergency constitutional powers to enforce temporary measures, such as building physical barriers in strategic locations and using our military in a support role in limited circumstances and well-understood rules of engagement.

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During this crisis, the United States should consider limiting the number of grants to asylum seekers and temporarily suspending new applications for legal status to put our house in order and regain control of our borders. We must immediately identify and expel anyone who poses a threat.

Once regained control, our country will be able to refocus its attention on an immigration plan that is more comprehensive and consistent with our values: a plan that is fair to immigrants who have followed the rules by waiting patiently outside our borders, that promotes economic growth, that does not reward or incarcerate those who entered the country without the necessary documentation, and to protect U.S. citizens and their property.

However, it is important to reiterate that comprehensive reform of immigration policy is necessary and the ultimate goal.

The president must lead, and Congress must legislate and appoint. Every day we wait, more people die in that desert, harvest fields lie fallow without workers, supply chains are delayed, and the entrepreneurial spirit of this country, fueled, ironically, by immigrants, is extinguished.

America's cities no longer have the resources or capacity to pay the costs of congressional pride and stubbornness. As CNN reported, a record number of migrants are crossing into the United States, overwhelming cities like New York and Chicago.

It has been the constitutional duty of every legislator of this millennium to find a solution, and we have failed. We must be humble and put aside our ideologies, and protect our citizens, the rule of law, and immigrants seeking a better life for their families.

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And as citizens, we must show kindness to our legislators, so they feel confident doing what they know is right, and engage without fear of retaliation.

Immigration policy affects our economy, our national security, and our foreign policy, as well as relationships with family and friends. It influences the very essence of who we are as a country.

When not properly implemented, that policy threatens our peace and stability.

Once we adopt a long-term global framework, we will be stronger and more secure in an increasingly dangerous world, united and better able to face the challenges that lie ahead.