With Obama pressed to ease deportations, child migrant crisis is pushing back

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and organized labor are pressing Obama to use his executive authority to ease deportations. But the child migrant crisis is making 'prosecutorial discretion' unpopular.

Nick Ut/AP
Immigrant families and children's advocates rally in response to President Barack Obama's statement on the crisis of unaccompanied children and families illegally entering the United States, outside the Los Angeles Federal building, Monday.

A month ago, the trajectory of immigration politics in America was pretty well set: no immigration reform in the House this year, and the president expected to slow deportations on his own, through “prosecutorial discretion.”

The crisis involving migrant children on the border may well change that dynamic – and not in President Obama’s favor.

“Part of the narrative right now is that ‘prosecutorial discretion’ and lax enforcement have contributed to the problem at the border,” explains Marc Rosenblum, an expert on US immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute think tank in Washington. “That makes it harder to make a big announcement” to ease up on deportations, he says.

The administration is working to send the message to families in Central America, from which a surge of migrant children is coming, that the cost and danger to get their children to the United States is not worth it: Most of the children do not qualify to stay and will be deported. That’s one reason Mr. Obama is seeking $3.7 billion in emergency funds from Congress – to speed up the adjudication of these cases.

But if, at the same time, the administration eases up on deportations elsewhere, then “there’s a real dissonance" in the message, says Mr. Rosenblum.

That, however, is not the view of many of the president’s supporters, including organized labor and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who met with the president Wednesday to urge that due process be preserved for the child migrants. Both groups continue to pressure the president to use his executive authority to ease deportations so that workers are not taken advantage of in the workplace and families are not torn apart.

The child-migrant problem is a separate issue from executive action on deportations or immigration reform, the AFL-CIO stresses. 

“The situation along the border is a refugee crisis that requires a humane, lawful response and must not be politicized,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement Tuesday. “Lifting the pressure on immigrant workers was needed before the child refugee story developed, and it is no less urgent today,” he said, adding that the administration must “act now” to keep “all families together.”

The urgency of the child-migrant situation is the kind of crisis that can work two ways at once, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. It can “galvanize” hard-line Republicans who point to the crisis as evidence that the immigration problem must be addressed through tighter border security.

It can also “inspire” immigration reform advocates to be tougher with Obama, both on executive actions and keeping up the pressure for comprehensive reform. “This can symbolize to them the kind of chaos that legislative inaction has caused,” Professor Zelizer says.

If the president is looking to what the public wants, he’s getting plenty of signals from polls released this week. 

First, Americans are unhappy with the way he’s handled the border crisis, with 58 percent disapproving, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Second, more than half (53 percent) say they want the legal process for dealing with the Central American child cases speeded up, even if it means that some minors who are eligible for asylum are deported, according to the Pew Research Center.

And third, a plurality of Americans now list immigration as their No. 1 concern – 17 percent, more than at any time since 2006, according to Gallup. And, if they’re unhappy with Obama’s handling of the child-migrant crisis, they’re even more disappointed with Republicans in Congress on the crisis (68 percent disapprove).

All of this might suggest to House Republicans that most Americans still want immigration reform (they do, according to polls). But then there’s that “galvanizing” point that Zelizer makes. 

Pew found Republican support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants dropped 10 percentage points since February – to 54 percent. It was even more dramatic among tea party Republicans, who flipped from majority support for legalization to majority opposition.

So the Republican position on immigration looks hardened as a result of the crisis, while the president's looks weakened. 

A quick, bipartisan, and humane resolution could improve both sides’ standing. "There's more that Republicans and Democrats agree on than disagree" in this crisis, says Rosenblum. The urgency of the crisis, and the fact that so many children are involved, is a motivator.

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