“So sue me.”
— President Obama, complaining about Republican leaders
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We’re not sure who would be spurred into action by the hectoring lectures recently from the president of the United States along the lines of, “I’m right, you should know better.” Maybe his kids. Certainly not the Republican members of Congress.
Americans who aren’t fierce Republican or Democratic partisans probably rolled their eyes at this display — if they haven’t completely tuned out Washington’s bimodal distrust and contempt.
Problem is, right now, that mutual distrust and contempt hampers a national response to an urgent humanitarian crisis involving thousands of children.
Nearly 40,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have been apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol after sneaking across the Mexican-U.S. border in the past year. They’ve mainly come via smugglers, a harrowing journey that puts the kids in extreme danger. Once here, the children are picked up and held in government shelters until they can be released to family members or foster care. Eventually, they get hearings, or perhaps they just fade illegally into communities. This is part of a huge immigration mess that needs fixing.
But the plight of the Central American children should be considered separately — as a refugee crisis. Parents are handing over their kids, some as young as 4, to criminals, in the mistaken belief that U.S. immigration rules have been eased and they’ll formally be allowed to stay here. So added to an extreme backlog of immigration cases are thousands more involving unaccompanied children, who must be cared for by an overburdened federal bureaucracy untrained for the task.
The worst of it is the risk of the trip. The president warned that putting children in the hands of smugglers, or allowing them to travel alone, is terribly dangerous. Last week, Texas officials disclosed details of the death of an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy whose body was found in Texas scrub just this side of the border. Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez was traveling to relatives in Chicago and may have been accompanied at some point by an uncle, according to media reports. The boy’s body was found June 15 and identified by a phone number inscribed on his belt. Authorities don’t know the full circumstances of his trip, but suspect he died of heatstroke.
Obama sent a letter to Congress last week seeking $2 billion to help pay for the government response to the influx of children, plus lawmakers’ cooperation on the larger question: What to do with the children in U.S. hands? Current law doesn’t allow the Border Patrol to immediately turn back unaccompanied minors from noncontiguous countries as it can with Mexican children.
If the president truly wanted cooperation on this crisis, why did he also unload a term’s worth of frustration with gridlock by chiding Republicans for torpedoing immigration reform?
Republicans share blame for the failure to reach agreement on immigration legislation. You needn’t take Obama’s word on that. Take the word of the conservative and pro-immigration Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, which wrote last week that “a majority of GOP members wanted an immigration reform to pass as long as they didn’t have to vote for it.”
Business leaders who grew more vocal this year about the need for immigration reform have also grown more frustrated with the Republicans, who scurried to hide in dark corners when former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election in Virginia last month, arguably because he favored reform.
But the president’s lectures have been all certitude, no introspection.
Where’s the acknowledgment of his administration’s failure to build bipartisan consensus on almost anything? During his first two years as president, Democrats dominated both congressional chambers. Republicans now control the House. After the November election, they may control the House and the Senate. You’d think, in the sixth year of his presidency, that Obama would find a way to deal with the existence of an opposition party that can be as obstinate as he is.
Broad immigration reform, once seen as the best prospect for a rare breakout of bipartisanship, is dead for the year. But we still have an immigration crisis that is putting children at risk and creating more anxiety among U.S. residents in border states.
Obama promised to “move available and appropriate resources” to border security. Beyond that, he didn’t offer much. He said top administration figures will be tasked to come up with other responses by the end of the summer.
So the president, who said he’ll act when Republicans won’t, promised to act on this crisis … soon.
This should be a rare moment in the Obama presidency when it is possible to put political differences aside. These kids need to be kept safe — and in the custody of the U.S. government, not released — while there is a fair, humane and fast adjudication of their cases.
The children from Central America should get legal counsel. Some may qualify for asylum here. Most will be repatriated. It’s important that that happen, and quickly, so families back home recognize that shipping their children to the U.S. border will be perilous — and unrewarded.