President Barack Obama last week urged Congress to quickly provide almost $4 billion to confront “an urgent humanitarian situation” — a surge of young migrants from Central America crossing the border into Texas.
But we all know where that went: The request instantly became entangled in the quarrelsome partisan political debate we sum up in one word — immigration.
The president said he needed the money to set up new detention facilities, conduct more aerial surveillance and hire immigration judges and Border Patrol agents to respond to the flood of 52,000 children. The children’s sudden mass migration has overwhelmed local resources and touched off protests from residents angry about the impact on the local economy.
Republicans said they could not support it because the administration has failed to secure the Mexican border after years of illegal crossings.
In reality, the GOP’s tired, “failed enforcement” chant is far from true. Even a former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration acknowledged to the New York Times that the sad situation of the Central American child immigrants is not the result of the Obama administration failing to enforce the law.
“In reality, most would-be-migrants believe that crossing the border has become much more difficult, and in the last decade, the U.S. government has greatly strengthened border security and interior enforcement,” Alfonso Aguilar wrote in an essay to the newspaper. Aguilar is now the executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership.
The flood of children is coming from violence-torn and gang-ruled Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And that complicates what border patrol officials can do.
A 2008 law — passed by both houses of Congress with unanimous consent and signed by former President George W. Bush — is the holdup. The law was aimed at combating human trafficking, and it requires officials to provide extra legal protections for children entering the country alone who are not from Mexico or Canada. This law, in fact, prohibits those children from being quickly sent back to their country of origin.
If these youngsters were Mexican or Canadian, a Border Patrol officer would have the authority to determine whether the youngsters should be eligible to stay here for protection or be deported immediately, as are most Mexican children.
White House officials last week said they would like Congress to allow officials to process migrants from places like Honduras and Guatemala as quickly as Mexicans so the U.S. could have “one approach to children coming from the region.” They also have pressed members of Congress to consider the emergency funding request separately from the changes in legal authority.
But some lawmakers suggested that they want to deal with both issues together.
Result? A rerun of the bipartisan gridlock that prevented the immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 from being considered in the House.
Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, says that during a similar surge of Central Americans in 2001-02, instead of waiting for them to arrive, U.S. immigration agents based in Mexico City organized a multinational operation to intercept and return nearly 80,000 north-bound migrants, disrupting smuggling networks and significantly reducing pressure at the border. It cost less than $2 million, a fraction of the cost of processing and housing them in the United States, Vaughan said.
This time, too, the government is collaborating with Mexican officials to stop migrants before they reach our border, and the administration has instructed U.S. asylum officers to exercise more scrutiny and cut the number of approved persecution claims. President Obama has even suggested to Congress that important legal protections for children be rolled back to accelerate deportations.
But that approach has met with criticism from liberals. Ruthie Epstein, a legislative policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, says this crisis has everything to do with our commitment to the fundamental American values of fairness and due process. And she cautions that this should not become a “crisis of conscience” for the U.S.
Well — too late. We Americans sooner or later must realize that our desire for cheap labor and our homegrown social ills — drug consumption and gun trade — fuel the fire of violence and desperation that swells the waves of illegal migration.
We could address some of the problem with immigration reform that would tailor improved and more flexible guest worker programs to help American employers while not penalizing immigrant workers by preventing their return to visit the families in their homelands. But in the short term, we seem unable even to treat the symptoms of this newest crisis as long as Congress is unwilling to talk about anything beyond red and blue rhetoric.
The one clear message is that U.S. immigration policy cannot be just about fences and an armed border control. It also must be about investing in the kinds of violence prevention, community development, and anti-corruption efforts that help stabilize the Central American region — just as we already do in Africa and some countries of the Middle East — under the wrapper of preventive national defense.
And for those who argue that we taxpayers already spend too much on foreign assistance? Well, a mere 1 percent of federal spending in 2013 went toward foreign assistance, according to foreignassistance.gov, a website created by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development under the policy guidance of the National Security Council.