Illegal immigration: how 'humanitarian crisis' on border could hurt Obama

Thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the border are straining the US agencies that handle illegal immigration. That could affect President Obama's election year plans.

Rick Scuteri/AP
Maria Eva Casco (l.) and her son Christian Casco of El Salvador sit at at the Greyhound bus terminal in Phoenix in late May. Central American families arrested in Texas have been flown to Arizona, and hundreds of unaccompanied minors a day are being shipped to a federal detention center in the southern part of the state.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration was poised again to take executive action in an election year to ease deportations of undocumented immigrants. Today, that plan may be increasingly fraught with complications. 

In recent weeks, a tide of young, unaccompanied minors crossing the Texas border illegally has pushed the US immigration system to its breaking point. Unable to cope with the volume of children crossing the border without their parents, immigration authorities have had to find emergency solutions, such as housing thousands in a San Antonio Air Force base, a California Navy base, and a makeshift detention center in Nogales, Ariz. 

The Associated Press reported that the Nogales warehouse was running out of supplies.

The Obama administration has linked the trend to unrest in Central American countries, but Republican critics say an executive action that the president took in 2012 is to blame, calling the situation "an administration-made disaster."

President Obama delayed rolling out new deportation reforms in late May partly because did didn't want to further anger Republicans who accuse him of unconstitutionally bypassing Congress to set immigration policy. Now, if he proceeds, he will have to fend off fresh claims that the very policies he has set have pushed the country into crisis.

At issue is Mr. Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which in 2012 allowed some undocumented immigrants who came to America as minors to defer deportation for two years. Last week, the administration announced guidelines for how these immigrants could defer deportation for a further two years. 

DACA would not apply to anyone coming across the border today. Only undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as minors before June 15, 2007, are eligible. But to Republican critics, DACA created the opportunity for misinformation and confusion.

"Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama's lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, a key broker in immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill, in a statement last week.

The numbers are stark.

During the decade preceding fiscal year 2012, the federal government agency tasked with caring for unaccompanied minors who cross the border illegally dealt with an average of 7,000 to 8,000 cases a year, according to a Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet. In fiscal year 2011, the number was 6,560.

The following year, however, the number jumped to 13,625. This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2014, federal officials are estimating that the number could be 80,000, according to an internal memo cited by The New York Times.

Obama called the situation a "humanitarian crisis" Monday. Poverty and violence are driving the migration, administration officials say, and activists working with migrants agree. But some also suggest that DACA could be a factor.

Tania Chavez of La Union del Pueblo Entero told KRGV-TV of the Rio Grande Valley that the "coyote" smugglers who bring Central Americans to the US illegally may be telling people that children can take advantage of the program and find work in the United States.

Indeed, media reports have indicated that many of the migrants are coming because they believe children will not be deported. "They're saying that women and children are allowed to stay," a recently detained undocumented immigrant from Guatemala told Monitor correspondent Lourdes Medrano in Tucson, Ariz., Thursday.

The president is facing pressure from his political base to take new executive action on deportations. One heckler in San Francisco yelled at him during a speech last November: "You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country." The crowd chanted: "Stop deportations! Yes we can!"

The issue is politically significant, because many Democratic-leaning groups – including Latinos – tend to skip midterm elections, and Republicans are poised to retake the Senate. If Democratic turnout is bad this November, Obama could face a Republican-held Senate and House during his final two years in office.

In 2012, DACA was seen partly as a move to get out the vote for Obama's presidential election. This year's deportation reforms would seem to be, at least in part, an attempt to do the same for key Senate races.  

But with Republicans casting Obama as an imperial president – most recently running roughshod over Congress in the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap – the deportation reforms could confirm that claim for some Republican voters. And with Republicans in Congress arguing that the crisis on the border offers compelling evidence of damage, Obama faces a new question: Might he motivate the wrong voters in November?

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