WASHINGTON — After a day on the border earlier this month, two congressmen — one a Democrat and the other a Republican — came away with the same conclusion: The government can do nothing to deter the thousands of Central Americans trekking north to cross into the United States.

What Congress can do is move beyond the finger-pointing to finding agreement on how to better manage and protect the growing numbers of people seeking asylum at the border, Reps. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and Anthony Gonzales, R-Ohio, agreed.

The congressmen traveled to Texas with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus earlier this month. They heard from border agents and migrants who revealed a broken system of U.S. laws and policies intended to stem the tide of migrants that have instead been exploited by smugglers and drug cartels to profit off families, children and individuals desperate to escape their homelands riven with corruption and violence.

"It's a complex problem with a lot of moving parts, and, frankly, this is hard to wrap my head around, but I don't know that there is a (single) fix. Some problems can't be solved, full stop," Gonzalez said. "What this is going to require is people of good faith being willing to sit down with each other, see the problem for what it is and try to work on an incremental set of fixes that we can all agree on."

And McAdams doesn't see that happening until Congress shifts the debate from oversimplifying the crisis with incendiary tweets and accusations to finding agreement on what pieces of the immigration puzzle Congress and the administration can realistically solve.

"If you change the dialogue to that, then we're debating whether a particular policy is going to make the situation worse or better. That's how you problem-solve," said McAdams.

McAdams and Gonzalez were among 17 House members of the Problem Solvers Caucus who followed the parade of dozens of other senators and representatives who flew to the border following reports in June that exposed horrific, crowded conditions at federal detention and processing facilities along the border.

If you change the dialogue to that, then we're debating whether a particular policy is going to make the situation worse or better. That's how you problem-solve. – Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah

The earlier trips sparked viral videos and tweets from Democrats accusing border patrol officers of running "concentration camps." Republicans defended the border agents managing a crisis and blamed Democrats for ignoring pleas for additional funding to relieve the overwhelmed border operations.

Congress eventually approved a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package against the protests of some House Democrats who wanted more oversight provisions to ensure funding would go toward caring for migrants and not to President Donald Trump's border wall or troop deployments to the area.

The 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans who comprise the Problem Solvers Caucus voted for the funding and took credit for getting the Senate proposal through the House and on the president's desk. Three weeks later, 17 of them flew to McAllen, Texas, to visit with border agents and migrants.

An 'emotional toll'

Many of the reports of crowded, unsanitary conditions have come out of the Central Processing Center in McAllen, reportedly the largest intake center in the U.S. and the one where Trump's family separation policy was carried out.

It was there that McAdams and Gonzalez saw a Coast Guard officer caring for a 10-month-old baby.

"And when we asked whose baby it was, (the officer) had no idea," Gonzalez said.

The child arrived with a man who claimed to be its father, but a rapid DNA test showed the man was not the parent. Agents explained to the congressmen that the man brought the baby because smugglers charge less for family units and U.S. policy prioritizes families seeking asylum.

"It's created a market to traffic kids," said Gonzalez.

The congressmen didn't know how the man seeking asylum got the baby or how customs officials will find where the baby's parents are. A phone number the man provided agents didn't connect officials to the child's parents. The child could end up at faith-based foster care facilities that work with U.S. Customs to care for unaccompanied minors.

"The takeaway for me from that whole set of facts is that the situation is really complicated ... and sometimes, well-intended actions may have unintended negative consequences," McAdams said of the U.S. policy prioritizing family asylum petitions, which has created an incentive to traffic children.

At a Rio Grande River crossing, a border patrol agent told the lawmakers he discovered and carried out the bodies of a mother and her two young children who had died, possibly from dehydration and exposure, after crossing the river and getting lost in the remote and rugged desert terrain.

The experience has taken a "emotional toll" on the border agent, McAdams said.

McAdams explained how attempts to "meter" or control the number of migrants passing through normal checkpoints force some to attempt crossing the river, hoping border agents find them before they become lost.

"They are looking for border authorities. They are not trying to hide from anyone," he said.

A Honduran woman sitting on the padded floor with her 8-year-old daughter in the newer and more spacious detention facility in Donna, Texas, showed the congressmen the picture of her dead husband emblazoned on her T-shirt. She said he was murdered in Honduras by a gang and she feared she and her children (she also has a 14-year-old son) were next, McAdams said.

The widow told the lawmakers, who both speak Spanish, she paid smugglers working with drug cartels to guide them on a journey that took 28 days by foot and by bus. They had been well-fed and cared for since they arrived at the Donna facility the day before, but she was anxious about her son, who was in a separate area of the facility that separates teens from younger children.

McAdams said the Donna facility, which was described as a large exhibition tent-like structure, was not crowded that day since just a few dozens families had arrived the day before. On other days as many as 1,000 can arrive, which can create havoc as an overtaxed staff tries to accommodate the new arrivals and begin processing asylum claims.

"These are very, very difficult circumstances," Gonzalez said. "You're talking about families who came, in some cases taking two months to get up to the southern border, and are now awaiting their fate."

Broken Washington

Gonzalez said his father's family fled Cuba in 1960 to escape death threats from the Fidel Castro regime, so he is sympathetic to the fears those fleeing Central American countries where being a victim of gang and drug violence is cited as the primary reason for seeking asylum.

"I know what that's like and you're not going to solve that," he said. "If those are failed states, people are going to want to leave. And that's just the reality."

More than 144,200 migrants were taken into custody at the southwest border in May, the highest monthly total in 13 years, The New York Times reported.

McAdams said Congress needs to recognize the plight of refugees while fixing a system that conflates immigration with asylum. U.S. law allows anyone to seek asylum if they can prove their lives are under threat in the country of their nationality.

"We've told people if you want to immigrate for the sake of employment, you're better off making an asylum claim. And that undercuts those people who are legitimately seeking asylum," he said.

The system has created a backlog of cases that can result in claims taking up to three years to resolve, while people with both valid and invalid claims are released into the country while they await their court dates, McAdams explained.

"And so what I saw was both asylum-seekers and the Border Patrol trying to make the best of horrific situations that they didn't cause," he said. "But really, this is caused by broken Washington. They're just trying to do the best they can. And Washington failed them."

The Trump administration has been battling in court to change what it calls a "catch and release" asylum policy that has generated the flow of Central Americans to the border. On Monday, The Associated Press reported that Attorney General William Barr determined people who fear persecution because of family ties to victims of violence, such as the widow who McAdams and Gonzales talked to, will no longer be eligible for asylum.

FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after signing a tax bill and resolution in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Tuesday, July 30, 2019, requiring
FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after signing a tax bill and resolution in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Tuesday, July 30, 2019, requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to appear on the state's primary ballot, a move aimed squarely at Republican President Donald Trump. | Evan Vucci, Associated Press

While the Problem Solvers members debriefed at the end of the day at the border facilities, McAdams said he thought of the Utah Compact — where state lawmakers and leaders in November 2010 took a step back from the heated rhetoric over immigration and drafted a set of principles that would frame their debate over what immigration policies to pursue.

"The document was intended to change the tone of the conversation from combative to collaborative by focusing on the common ground shared between the state’s diverse decision-makers," the Deseret News reported.

State leaders reaffirmed the compact in March. Among the five principles in the compact is that immigration is a federal issue that should be addressed on the national level.

McAdams said he shared with the Problem Solvers that what they can immediately bring to the debate is to change the nature of the dialogue, as the Utah Compact did in his home state, from who's to blame to finding agreement on what the problems are and how they need to be accomplished.

"That's where I weighed in with a suggestion that policy should be debated, but we can add value as problem-solvers by maybe focusing on the nature of the dialogue and principles of that we want to pursue, and then let policies follow from that," he said.

Gonzalez recalled what McAdams said and realized "we don't have a structure of effective problem-solving (in) Congress. And if you get the structure right up front and you agree to that set of principles and operating guidelines, then you certainly increase your likelihood of coming to the solutions."

Neither of the freshmen lawmakers sit on committees with jurisdiction over immigration policy. But the experience of traveling to the border with colleagues from both parties representing diverse districts gave them hope the caucus can find ways turn the immigration debate from a climate of confrontation to one of collaboration.

"The time I spent with the Problem Solvers in McAllen, Texas, is probably the most productive time I've had in Congress," McAdams said.