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GOP pounces on border crisis as immigration reform implodes

A surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America is creating new policy challenges — and dragging the GOP to the right on immigration.
A Guatemalan child deported from the United State poses for photo in front of a map of the Guatemala City at an immigration shelter, June 19, 2014.
A Guatemalan child deported from the United State poses for photo in front of a map of the Guatemala City at an immigration shelter, June 19, 2014.

Throughout the last two years, Republican and Democratic supporters of reform alike boasted that declining illegal immigration along the Mexican border had created the political space they needed to pass reform. No longer: A flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America is blowing up that fragile calm and dragging the GOP to the right as they point fingers at the White House for the ongoing crisis.

“Word has spread to the Americas and beyond that the Obama administration has taken unprecedented and most likely unconstitutional steps in order to shut down the enforcement of our immigration laws,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and a crucial GOP bellwether on immigration, said in a hearing on Wednesday.

As several Democratic members complained, the title of the hearing, “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge Of Unaccompanied Alien Minors,” left little mystery as to the chairman’s conclusion on the issue. 

“It shows what a farce it is,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, said. “You announce the conclusion before the inquiry.” 

"As violence, poverty and gangs drive families out of Central America, I see Republican members of Congress and their allies in talk radio and TV taking advantage of a humanitarian crisis to score political points."'

Republicans have singled out as a top culprit Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program created by the White House to let young undocumented immigrants, commonly known as DREAMers, temporarily live and work in the United States. Under this reasoning, Central American migrants are flocking to the border based on the mistaken belief that they’ll be eligible for some kind of legal status even though DACA only applies to immigrants who have resided in the United States continuously since June 2007. Some critics have gone so far as to blame even just the discussion of immigration reform in Congress for encouraging the wave. 

Even relatively pro-reform Republicans have criticized DACA in the past, but most have downplayed the issue since 2012 given widespread popular support for allowing younger undocumented immigrants to remain in the country. Goodlatte himself worked with Rep. Eric Cantor on a never-released bill to legalize some DACA-eligible immigrants.

That dynamic is now changing. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who only a few months ago was working on a bill of his own that would allow undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the country, is now calling on the administration to start deporting DREAMers again. 

This shift marks the end of the GOP’s post-Romney effort to court Latino voters with promises of reform. Instead key Republicans are once again demanding higher deportations while downplaying talk of broader legislation. Newly elected majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who previously backed legal status for undocumented immigrants, now says the GOP won't consider the issue until the border is secure -- a vague standard and ubiquitous talking point during the party's last anti-reform swing. 

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a leading pro-reform Democrat from Illinois declared immigration reform officially dead on Wednesday, calling Wednesday’s hearing “the last straw.” He urged the White House to take unilateral action to expand deportation protections instead. 

“As violence, poverty and gangs drive families out of Central America, I see Republican members of Congress and their allies in talk radio and TV taking advantage of a humanitarian crisis to score political points,” Gutierrez said in a speech on the House floor. 

The White House initially attributed the surge, which may number as many as 90,000 children this year, solely on humanitarian conditions in Central America. They later acknowledged that rumors spread by smugglers that migrants will be able to legally stay in America if they can reach the border are a contributing factor. But the evidence that DACA itself is a prime driver of the crisis is weak at best.

Democrats and immigration activists point to a survey by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees that interviewed 404 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvdaor, Guatemala, and Mexico who had made the trek and found they overwhelmingly cited violent conditions, abuse, and deprivation as their main motivator for leaving. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala not far behind. Of 104 children U.N. officials talked to from El Salvador, only one said they were encouraged by the possibility of benefiting from some type of immigration reform.

“We heard stories of children watching their classmates being tortured, dismembered, of threats against girls in order to be recruited as sexual persons for these gangs,” Leslie Velez, Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR, told reporters on Wednesday.

What might be the strongest evidence that conditions in Central America and not White House policies are the main driver is that they’re fleeing to other countries as well. According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala seeking asylum in countries besides the United States has shot up 712% since 2008.  

News reports on rumors of legal status have noted that many migrants are misinterpreting a notice to appear in court for deportation proceedings as a permission slip to stay in the country. Critics, including Goodlatte, have argued the White House has not done enough to detain and then quickly remove these families and children, thus encouraging more to come as news spreads back home that they haven’t been removed. 

Here they’re on firmer ground in identifying a problem, but it’s less clear who to blame or how to address it.

Under a Bush-era law designed to protect children from human trafficking, unaccompanied minors must be turned over to Health and Human Services within 72 hours. But officials are currently overwhelmed by the huge increase in children, significantly slowing the process. Detention centers are packed, forcing the administration to set up temporary shelters at military bases and release migrants with a notice to show up for a later court date. But immigration courts, already backlogged by a glut of removal proceedings, can take months or longer to resolve new cases. And if migrants are genuinely fleeing dangerous conditions, they may be eligible for refugee or asylum under longstanding American laws and international agreements, triggering a procedure all its own.

“We have to take the time, sort these kids’ cases out fully, decide who should stay and who can go home, but we cant do that unless we stick to our principles of due process,” Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, told reporters Wednesday.

The White House has announced plans to expedite removals and is planning to expand the use of monitoring devices like ankle bracelets to track migrants while they wait for their court proceedings. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala to meet with regional leaders and ask for help quelling rumors of legal status in America. He also announced a $255 million package to assist in returning Central American migrants to their home countries and combat local gang violence. 

But if Republicans want to add detention centers, speed up removals, or change the procedures for handling unaccompanied minors, they might want to reopen immigration reform talks. The bipartisan Senate bill, passed one year ago this week, included funds to expand immigration courts and would have roughly doubled the size of the border patrol.

In the meantime, Homeland Security’s budget has been cut due to sequestration, which officials say reduces the number of agents and detainee beds available. 

Democrats would almost certainly agree to even more enforcement measures in exchange for some kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants – Majority Leader Harry Reid has even offered to postpone implementation of reform until 2017 to reassure Republicans distrustful of Obama. But with reform dying, House Republicans seem content to return to their old pre-2012 policy of demanding more deportations from the sidelines while doing nothing to negotiate a comprehensive solution.