A vexing crisis at the border

The influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United States is a wrenching humanitarian crisis, and the federal government’s handling of it will create an indelible impression around the world of America’s commitment to human rights and child welfare. Or maybe it’s a reflection of porous border security, aggravated by mixed signals to Latin Americans about what will become of their children who try to get over the border without authorization.

The finger-pointing has begun. It’s President Obama’s fault, some say, for not doing more to thwart the flow of children seeking refuge. Others assert it’s the fault of former President George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress, who approved two pieces of legislation giving special treatment to children who come into the country illegally and without their parents.

Obama looks bad because he went to Texas and Colorado on a political fundraising trip and didn’t ask that Air Force One make a stop at the border, so he could see the crisis firsthand. Or perhaps it’s GOP lawmakers who look bad for balking at giving the president the $3.7 billion he’s requested to expedite the processing of the traumatized children sitting in detention centers and to beef up border security, among other steps. Tragically, there’s some truth to every accusation and counteraccusation surrounding the immigration crisis on the nation’s southern border. And the matter has only served to deepen mistrust on Capitol Hill, and between Congress and the White House, making it even less likely that comprehensive immigration reform will be completed anytime soon.

Immigration – always a political hot potato – has become a multifaceted problem for the administration in recent months, as tens of thousands of children from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking entry. The kids – many of them brought by human traffickers who convinced parents the children would be given a home and new chance at life in America – are processed at detention centers, but from there the problems mount. They can’t just be thrown back over the border, as they are unable to care for themselves (and U.S. law applies differently to immigrants coming from noncontiguous countries, as opposed to Canada or Mexico). The places they come from are often very dangerous (which is why parents would agree to send them off on their own, it’s presumed). Still, it’s not always clear that the kids qualify for asylum. And if they are placed with a family here while awaiting deportation proceedings, there’s no guarantee that they won’t simply fail to show up, adding to what illegal immigration worriers say is already an out-of-control situation.

Obama, too, faces difficult legal and political quandaries. He’s already under fire for easing enforcement of deportation laws for minors (something Republicans say is encouraging the current influx of unaccompanied children). And House Speaker John Boehner is threatening a lawsuit against Obama for unspecified unilateral executive actions. Meanwhile, parts of the Democratic base are insisting the president find a way to help the children stay here and avoid being sent back to dangerous, even deadly, situations.

The president’s request for $3.7 billion in supplemental funds would pay for the detention, care and transportation of the unaccompanied minors, as well as for expanding immigration courts and punishing human traffickers. But the GOP says the administration needs to go much further, either by making it easier to get rid of immigrants without legal status coming from noncontiguous countries or by punishing (with denial of foreign aid) nations that allow such trafficking.

A law enforcement officer looks across the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 25, 2014, in Granjeno, Texas.

A law enforcement officer looks across the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on June 25 in Granjeno, Texas.

“We want to give him that,” GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, says of Obama’s cash ask. But he adds that the administration needs to find a way, while keeping due process, to make it clear children arriving here illegally will not be allowed to stay. “Nothing will stop the flow like seeing a plane coming back with kids,” Flake says. The children can still claim asylum or refugee status (which may or may not be awarded), Flake adds – but they can’t just be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services for care.

The problem, says Republican Sen. John Cornyn, whose home state of Texas is the frontline for the crisis, is that the immigrants are given a “notice to appear” in court after they are processed. In fact, he says, it becomes a “notice to disappear,” and the kids are never found and sent back.

Democrats say it’s not so easy – and in part, that’s because of a 2002 law and a 2008 law written with the GOP and signed by Bush. The 2002 law says unaccompanied minors must be given special treatment, held in the least restrictive environment and placed where it is best for the child. The 2008 law, on trafficking, says such children must be released to HHS within 72 hours. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who wrote the unaccompanied minors part of the 2008 law, says it has enough flexibility in it to preclude the need for more legislation to deal with the children. “The process I don’t think is the problem. The problem is what’s at the home of these children and how they’re treated here. I don’t think they’re here because an 8-year-old doesn’t know where to go.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., agrees, saying the flow won’t stop until parents think keeping their kids with them is safer than sending them on an arduous and uncertain journey here. The president’s $3.7 billion plan, Cardin says, “is dealing more with … the effects of the unaccompanied children [arriving] rather than trying to deal with the problems in the countries the children are coming from. We need to take care of the children. They’re entitled to a hearing; they’re entitled to be kept safe.” But “what I want to see is dealing with the underlying cause,” Cardin adds.

Obama rankled lawmakers in both parties for not only refusing to take a trip to the border to see the crisis in person, but for being photographed the previous evening, on a fundraising trip, shooting pool and drinking beer with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. The president’s trip to Texas included a roundtable in Dallas on the border crisis with Gov. Rick Perry and faith leaders. Though Obama urged Congress to approve the $3.7 billion as well as sweeping immigration reform, chances for agreement on a broad bill are near zero.

“This is a heartbreaking crisis for this country. We’re dealing with children, stacked up in holding cells overnight for two to three days at a time. This is a test for our country,” says Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. “I hope we can handle it in a way where we can look back in pride.” First, Congress needs to figure out which concern reigns supreme: the integrity of the border, the safety of the children, or the November elections.