The thousands of children crossing the southern U.S. border are putting immigration back on the political agenda -- and neither party is happy about it.
House Republicans have shied away from the issue for years because of internal divisions. Democrats see the crisis creating momentum for a small fix rather than the comprehensive revamp of immigration laws that they want. And President Barack Obama faces the prospect of mass deportations of children at a time when his administration was easing away from such actions.
“Both sides, months before an election, are viewing this through a political prism,” said John Feehery, a onetime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and now a Republican strategist. “There’s not any real consensus on how to deal with it other than throwing more resources at the border.”
Obama -- who will meet today in Texas with Republican Governor Rick Perry, an outspoken critic of his policies -- is forcing members of both parties in Congress to share some of the political risk. The president, who has pledged to use executive orders to deal with immigration issues, asked lawmakers yesterday for almost $4 billion to strengthen border security and curb the tide of the approximately 52,000 children who entered the U.S. illegally from Latin America since October.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee will take up the matter today.
The debate will squeeze Republicans between one part of their base that wants stiffer border security and another that advocates showing sensitivity, which may appeal to Hispanics and other voters before this November’s midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.
A New York Times poll released in May found 46 percent of Americans said the U.S. should welcome all immigrants, compared with just 19 percent who said the country can’t afford to open its doors to newcomers.
The intraparty divide was a prime reason House Republicans didn’t act on broader immigration legislation after a bipartisan measure passed the U.S. Senate last year. Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, were noncommittal yesterday about backing Obama’s proposal amid pushback by conservative policy groups, including Heritage Action for America, that are critical of the new spending.
“Our nation’s border security can be addressed through the regular appropriations process where priorities can be reordered and spending can occur within the established budget caps,” Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action, said in a statement.
Republicans are blaming Obama for the border crisis, citing a 2012 decision by him to halt the deportation of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
The situation “is a disaster of President Obama’s own making,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who was part of a bipartisan fact-finding visit to the border last week.
The president “has the power to stop it now” by enforcing immigration laws and directing the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on asylum fraud, he said.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said yesterday the chamber “will review the White House proposal” for additional funding.
Obama’s approach to the migrant children is anathema to many Democrats, who have repeatedly rejected passing stand-alone border-security legislation, believing it would doom a broader immigration bill.
“There is pretty much a meltdown in three of these countries” where the children have come from, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who has played a leading role on immigration issues and was also on the border trip. “The warlords are taking over and are terrorizing the population.”
“The role of Congress is not to try and use the refugee crisis as a talking point in an anti-immigrant political agenda,” she said.
That crisis has hit Texas harder than any other state, and Perry, a potential 2016 presidential contender who failed in a 2012 White House bid, has said he has warned the Obama administration for more than two years about unaccompanied children showing up at the border.
“I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is secure,” the governor said on July 6 on ABC’s “This Week.”
Obama, who has scheduled his Texas visit ti headline political fundraisers in Dallas and Austin, will meet with Perry as part of a roundtable discussion on the emergency.
Perry had earlier dismissed an invitation to meet the president on the tarmac in Austin, the state capital. He instead suggested a private session, according to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.
Obama has no plans to visit the border while on the trip, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Cecilia Munoz, Obama’s domestic policy adviser, said today the president has directed his staff to “stay focused on what’s going to be most impactful” in dealing with the crisis.
“There are people who are trying to turn this into a political football,” she said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program when asked why he isn’t visiting the border.
Earnest cited administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who have visited the area.
That drew a rebuke from Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican. “Can you imagine any president refusing to deal with this firsthand to get the information themselves?” he said to reporters yesterday. “It’s really important that he do so.”
The emergency spotlights Obama’s record on deportations, something Democrats want to minimize in such swing states as Colorado with large numbers of Hispanic voters and where the party is defending a U.S. Senate seat in November.
Obama is also asking Congress to change the law to allow authorities to turn Central American children back at the border after a quick interview by agents, the same way Mexican minors are treated when they arrive. The president is expected to face strong opposition within his party to the measure.
“Everybody’s very concerned; I’m one of them,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “It’s extremely sad that perhaps the only legislation Congress will pass this year is deporting children.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters yesterday her panel would begin considering the president’s budget request this week.
Republican lawmakers said they’d have their own ideas on how to spend money for border security.
“Out of the $3.7 billion, there is money spread a little bit everywhere,” Cornyn said of the funding request. “But one of the things we’re going to be looking at is where it can be placed to the greatest effect.”
Goodlatte’s office said the illegal migration of minors will grow to an estimated 142,000 in 2015 from 6,500 in the fiscal year that ended in 2011, citing estimates by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics. The agency reported that as of mid-June, more than 50,000 minors and 40,000 family members had attempted to cross into the U.S. since October.
Human rights and immigration activists are concerned that Obama will send the children back into situations where their lives are at risk. A recent report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found about 60 percent of the children are fleeing their countries because they suffered or faced harm that indicated a “need for international protection.”