Blog No. 41. The Mess at the Border (and in Washington).

The surge of unaccompanied children from Central America across our southern border has produced what is generally recognized to be a mess. Sadly, it has been accompanied by the familiar mess in Washington with the usual antagonists, the Administration and Congress, Republicans and Democrats, struggling over how to respond. And the border crisis appears to have made the goal of “comprehensive immigration reform” more elusive than ever.Children-at-border

To be clear, has long supported, and continues to support, comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. As a matter of policy, the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country are here to stay; notions of deportation or self-deportation are delusional. Plainly, it is in the national interest for those individuals and their children to become full contributors to our economy and society. In terms of politics, some Republicans worry that admitting new citizens will simply create new Democratic voters, but that is a self-fulfilling prophecy that need not be accepted. Moreover, even without providing paths to citizenship, the growing portion of the electorate with a Latino heritage will be too sizable for Republicans safely to alienate or ignore.

It was, therefore, dismaying when Speaker Boehner advised President Obama on June 30 that immigration reform was dead for this session. The rationale expressed by Boehner was that “the American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written.” That may have struck many as a fig leaf for the troglodyte wing of the party whose animus toward immigrants and any form of immigration reform is unyielding. Ironically, however, Obama appeared to invest their position with some substance by proceeding to announce his intention to take a variety of unspecified actions on immigration by executive order. Even more important, the Administration’s inept handling of the surge of children at the border has become the new focus of the immigration debate crowding out, temporarily at least, the issue of comprehensive reform.

Unlike a hurricane, the surge of immigrant children did not develop over a few days, but had been building for several months. Nevertheless, when the Administration first addressed the problem publicly, it seemed to have come as a surprise to them. In early June, the White House identified the surge of unaccompanied children across the border as a humanitarian crisis. Within a few weeks, President Obama was pleading directly to parents in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the countries of origin for most of the children, not to send them here: “Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.” Similarly, Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated in a press briefing on July 7 that “Based on what we know about these cases, it is unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief.”

In fact, it is not clear how many children would in fact be sent back under existing procedures and Obama and his Press Secretary seem clearly to have overstated the case. While the grounds for asylum are narrow–poverty and exposure to gang violence are not sufficient–relatively few children have actually been deported. A Wall Street Journal article of July 11 presented a detailed and convincing analysis to demonstrate that “Data from immigration courts, along with interviews with the children and their advocates, show that few minors are sent home and that many are able to stay for many years in the U.S., if not permanently.” For a start, nearly half the children ordered to report for a hearing simply do not show up. Those who do appear step into an overburdened system and a procedural morass in which lengthy delays are inevitable.

The President has  suggested that the law be changed in some unspecified fashion to permit more expeditous deportation of the children. The current rather elaborate procedures were adopted as part of the Wilberforce Act in 2008, a law designed to combat trafficking in children. The 2008 law provided that within 72 hours children are to be placed under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services while awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge to determine whether they are entitled to asylum. Contrary to the impression of some, the 2008 law did not make an exception, or create special procedures, for children from Central American countries. Rather, the new procedures were provided for children from all “non-contiguous” countries, that is, all countries except Canada and Mexico. Children from the latter remained subject to summary deportation, presumably out of concern that too many children from Mexico might seek asylum here. It is clear that no one in 2008 anticipated anything approaching the massive influx seen this year.

On June 30, President Obama asked Congress for “additional authority to exercise discretion” in quickly sending the children home. He did not, however, propose any specific language. Moreover, a request for a change in the law was conspicuously missing when, on July 8, he submitted a request for a supplemental appropriation of $3.7 Billion to meet the crisis. Obama has been faced with opposition within his own party to any change in the 2008 law, and thus, while White House and other administration officials have indicated that they are open to some change in the law, they have been muffled and ambiguous as to just what that change might be.

The Administration has also offered the public few details as to what the requested $3.7 Billion would fund; if such details have been furnished to Congress, they have not made their way into the media. The broad categories, however, are as follows:

  • $1.8 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services to care for the children, provide housing, and address medical needs.
  • $1.5 billion to the Department of Homeland Security, including:
    • $300 million to the State Department for foreign aid, and to reintegrate children in their home countries. It also includes a $5 million State Department ad campaign in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, to deter parents and children from making the trip to the U.S.
    • $879 million for detention and removal
    • $480 million for border agent overtime and temporary duties, as well as detention facility costs, medical costs and transportation
    • $109 million for expanded investigations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras
    • $39 million for increased border air surveillance
  • $64 million to the Department of Justice for more judges, including $45 million for the addition of 40 more judges’ teams. The White House believes this could mean processing 55,000 to 75,000 cases more per year; $15 million for lawyers for the children.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that 53 percent of the public supports the President’s request, but how well they understand it is highly questionable. Skeptical Republicans have noted that over half of the funds requested, $1.8 Billion to HHS, are addressed to dealing with the problem but not to solving it. Moreover, it is not clear how that amount was arrived at or exactly what it is intended to pay for. How many children are estimated to require care and for how long? If other funds are being expended to expedite deportations, will that reduce the number of children under care? What steps, if any, are planned to assure that children for whom hearings are scheduled actually show up?

While the President’s request demands careful scrutiny, some self-styled conservatives seem opposed to spending any money at all on caring for the children. For example, a breathless request for funds from the Tea Party Patriots proclaimed:

Barack Obama now wants $3.7 billion to care for all the illegal alien children pouring across the border as a result of his crazed policies.
Once again, we must hold the line in the House and stop this pro-illegal alien madness. Not one dollar of taxpayer money should be used to “reward” people for breaking our immigration laws! [Bold font in original]

That position is, of course, absurd and one hopes that it will be ignored by Congressional Republicans. The children must be treated humanely, and whatever the flaws of the 2008 law, it must be followed until it is changed.

In the vacuum of leadership left by the White House, one possibly hopeful sign was a bipartisan bill introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Congressman Henry Cueller, both of Texas. They noted that there are currently 375,000 children waiting for a judicial hearing and said that the bill sought to assure them speedy trials. It calls for shortening the waiting period from years to a matter of only seven days and also requires the judge to deliver a ruling within 72 hours of the case being heard.

It could be debated whether a judicial, or quasi-judicial, process is necessary. In this respect it would be informative to know what the experience has been in dealing with Mexican children who are not entitled to such a process. (Even as to such children, summary deportations are permitted only if HHS makes administrative determinations that there are no credible risks of trafficking or persecution of the children in their home country.) Nevertheless, political realities probably require something along the lines of the Cornyn/Cueller approach. Indeed, even such a seemingly reasonable proposal was quickly rejected by several Democrats (including the inimitable Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) as well as immigrant-rights groups. It has now been reported by Politico that at a Wednesday briefing by the Administration for all 100 Senators, most Democratic Senators indicated they wanted a so-called clean supplemental funding measure–meaning with no policy changes attached, which is a key condition of congressional Republicans.” The Washington mess and resulting paralysis is particularly troubling in light of the fact that in two weeks Congress is scheduled to adjourn for their August recess.

The President has plainly been embarrassed by the border crisis as reflected, in the lively and often overheated discussion of whether he should have visited the border on his recent trip to Texas. That controversy may have contributed to the findings of the Washington Post-ABC News poll that 58 percent of the public disapprove of the President’s handling of the border crisis. Republicans, however, can take little comfort from that fact. According to the same poll, only 23 percent approve of how they have handled the issue, while 66 percent disapprove.

Public opinion and politics on the border issue are likely to remain volatile for sometime. If Congressional Democrats bow to immigrant pressure to block any action to expedite deportations, they may feel increasing heat from the public. A Pew Research Poll found that 53 percent of the public (including 46 percent of Democrats and larger numbers of Republicans and Independents) believe that the U.S. should accelerate the legal process even if some children eligible for asylum are deported. Those percentages are likely to increase if the border situation remains unresolved. Nevertheless, even if Republicans have been given something of a breather on the issue of comprehensive reform, it is inevitable that, sooner sooner or later, they will again have to confront it. And if they continue to stonewall on that issue, they will do so at their peril.

US/Mexico Border between Yuma, AZ and Calexico, CA

One thought on “Blog No. 41. The Mess at the Border (and in Washington).

  • Thanks for one of the most sensible statements I have read recently on the current immigration morass. While the confusing, conflicting proposals that have come out of the Obama administration invite ready opposition, what is needed of course are serious proposals that deal realistically and humanely with the immediate realities. RINO’S are to be applauded for being open to and encouraging this. Would be great to be reading such commentaries in the daily press instead of the more typical republican line usually read there.

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