Child migrant crisis: why Congress is getting nowhere on solving it

Americans are puzzled why lawmakers can't come to terms on child immigrant crisis. But the politics are tough and the issue has morphed into a debate about immigration.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio arrives for a meeting of the Republican Conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

It looks like Congress will leave for its five-week August recess without addressing the child-migrant crisis on America’s southern border.

House Republicans introduced their plan to deal with the crisis on Tuesday, and Senate Democrats are expected to try to move theirs on Wednesday. The two plans are miles apart in funding and content, with no movement toward compromise.

The inaction will perplex Americans, 80 percent of whom call the influx of tens of thousands of minors from Central America a “crisis” or “serious problem,” according to a poll released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute.

But the gridlock has an explanation, in politics and in policy. 

An issue that began as a funding request – on July 8 President Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency money to handle the surge of minors – has blow up into a debate over immigration, the Gordian Knot of American politics.

“If this were just the numbers, you could split the difference,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert and political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Here we’re talking about national identity. It’s a kind of issue where it’s hard to split the difference.”

Not that politics is somehow hiding in the shadows. It’s out in plain sight.

A White House that publicly and repeatedly stated support for changing a 2008 law on child trafficking – a change that’s at the heart of this debate and the GOP legislation in the House – last night pivoted and swung behind the Democratic Senate plan. That plan gives the president $2.7 billion in emergency spending for the border crisis but includes no change to the trafficking law.

Now, Senate Democrats are toying with the idea of attaching comprehensive immigration reform to the House measure if it comes to the Senate. That reform passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote more than a year ago, but it was declared dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House. Sending it to the House for a second time would be a political stick-in-your-eye to Republicans – a reminder that they’ve fallen down on an issue that most Americans support.

Meanwhile, the House border legislation, wrapped into an appropriations bill on Tuesday, shrank from an expected $1.5 billion in funding to $659 million – offset with cuts elsewhere and most of the funds going to the Department of Homeland Security, which controls the border.

The politics here is that Democrats are trying to bring Latinos to the polls while Republicans are trying to show themselves to be good stewards of the budget and the border. Most of them don’t have many Latinos in their district, while that group is important to the Democratic base, and especially needed as Democrats head into an election where control of the Senate is at stake.

But there are also genuine policy differences here, illustrated in this:

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas whose bipartisan bill is at the heart of the GOP plan, has said he is wide open to compromise with his fellow Democrats, but he has no takers.

He and his Texas colleague, Sen. John Cornyn (R), together fashioned a bill that changes the 2008 child-trafficking law so that unaccompanied minors from Central America are treated just like ones from Mexico and Canada by being asked if they want to voluntarily deport.

If not, they would need to go before a US immigration judge within a week of being screened by Health and Human Services. The aim is to speed up the judicial process – which can take years because of a backlog in the immigration courts.

Key Democrats in both Houses, child-advocate groups, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus object to the change. They say that an armed border patrol agent is not the right person to query a 15-year-old girl who may have been abused about whether she wants to return to her country. And seven days is completely inadequate to find counsel for a child migrant and determine the legitimacy of that migrant’s claim to stay in the United States, they say.

In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Cuellar said he’s open to giving migrants more time to prepare their cases for a judge. “I’ve said 30 days, 45 days, 60 days. I’m willing to look at it, but I don’t want three to five years.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois rejected that idea. There are other ways to speed up adjudication without endangering due process for children who have potentially suffered violence or are in danger of being returned to violent countries, he said.

It comes down to this, he said: “Had [House Republicans] simply adopted the Senate bill, we would have the additional judges, the children would have the attorneys that they need, and we would never have had this crisis on our border.”

Republicans beg to differ, blaming the crisis on the president for lax enforcement of the border, an executive order that delays deportation for certain children of illegal immigrants, and the trafficking law that was never designed to handle a surge of tens of thousands of children.

"A strong majority of Americans think the 2008 anti-trafficking law should be updated to speed up the process of returning unaccompanied minors to their home countries. President Obama and many other Democrats were for changing the 2008 law before they were against it for political reasons," said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a statement Tuesday.

"Here's the bottom line," he added. "The president and Senate Democrats want a blank check and billions of taxpayer dollars to spend, with no accountability and no end to the border crisis. But they aren't going to get it."

Who will pay for this stalemate? Right now, there's more danger for the president, says Professor Pitney. "When things go bad, people tend to blame the incumbent administration." On the other hand, "Republicans have also shown a great talent for bungling domestic issues."

The American public might have a different answer: The children from Central America will pay. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the migrants should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay in the US, if it's determined that it's not safe for them to return home, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll. 

How best to make that determination? Congress can't decide.

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