Why Obama's $2 billion border crackdown could have high political costs, too

President Obama will ask Congress for $2 billion to help speed the deportation of families and unaccompanied kids crossing the border. This was not his election-year plan.

Christopher Sherman/AP
The US government plans to turn this corrugated steel warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a processing facility for unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally, according to construction permits. The Border Patrol has been overwhelmed by more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors that have been arrested since October 2013 after entering the Unites States illegally.

This, it is safe to say, is not what President Obama had in mind when it came to election year politics about immigration.

On Monday, Mr. Obama will ask Congress for $2 billion to help his administration speed deportations of the tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America now flooding across the Texas border, according to a New York Times report.

The president had hoped this would be the year that a comprehensive immigration reform bill at last became law after the Senate passed its version last summer. At the very least, he hoped to tweak immigration enforcement through an executive action to make deportations more humane.

Instead, Monday's move is an acknowledgment that coyotes and cartels trafficking undocumented immigrants across the US border are exploiting several US vulnerabilities simultaneously, creating a humanitarian crisis.

  • Border authorities have fast-track provisions to deport undocumented Mexican immigrants, largely because the two countries share a border, making deportation simple. Obama will ask Congress to give the Department of Homeland Security additional powers to speed deportations to Central America, since most immigrants in the current surge are coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
  • Until this month, the United States had only one detention center for families, meaning that many families were freed on their own recognizance until deportation hearings began. Now, federal officials have had to open shelters on three military bases for unaccompanied minors and a new detention center for families in New Mexico.
  • Until last year, Arizona's Tucson sector had been the busiest portion of the US-Mexican border for more than a decade. As a result, 4,135 of the more than 21,000 border patrol agents are in the Tucson sector; the Rio Grande Valley comes second with 3,086 agents, according to an Associated Press report. Yet this fiscal year, 194,015 arrests have been made in the Rio Grande Valley, with only 71,654 in Tucson. 

Administration officials are also acknowledging that misinformation about White House policy has played a part in the surge. Obama took executive action in 2012 to allow some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children to defer deportation for two years. Since then, the number of undocumented minors has exploded. In the decade before 2012, the number averaged 7,000 to 8,000 kids a year; this year, it could be 90,000.

None of the undocumented families or minors coming to the US today would be eligible for the deferrals. But that would not matter to smugglers.

"It's in their interest to create that misinformation, and I believe they are," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a House hearing on Tuesday.

Speaking to Central American parents in an interview with ABC News Thursday, Obama said, "Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it."

It was perhaps a more blunt message than Obama would like to have delivered in an election year – particularly an election year when the Latino vote could be crucial. Minority groups such as Latinos historically vote in smaller percentages during midterm elections, but control of the Senate is in the balance this November.

That is one reason Obama had hoped to take further executive action this year to soften deportation. Immigration advocates across the country this weekend rallied to mark one year since the Senate passed immigration reform – a bill that has gone nowhere in the House.

Instead, Obama is having to go hat in hand to Congress to request what is, in essence, a border crackdown. In fact, Republicans have been calling for some of these measures.

"Why aren't we putting them on a bus like we normally do and send them back down to Guatemala?" Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Alabama asked Secretary Johnson Tuesday.

Obama's Monday request will surely involve more nuance. But at a time that he would like to be expressing solidarity with the protesters at state capitols nationwide, he is instead being forced essentially to take a page from Representative Rogers's playbook.

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