If you want to understand just how difficult a jam Obama is in right now on immigration, pay close attention to Hillary Clinton’s remarks at a town hall meeting yesterday on what to do about the tens of thousands of minors who are crossing the border illegally into South Texas.

Clinton gives a nuanced answer, but ultimately she declares they must be sent home. It’s an answer Obama is to some degree constrained from giving. Meanwhile, this is ballooning into a major crisis: In total, 90,000 minors may be apprehended this year and another 142,000 next year.

Clinton makes a good moral case for legalizing those who are “raising families and working hard and contributing to our country” — the Rubicon that Republicans won’t cross. She allows that Obama — who is under pressure to ease deportations but is required to continue them under current law — is in a tough spot, while arguing that the ultimate humanitarian goal must be to stop breaking up families. But her answer on what to do about migrating minors is the most important:

“The numbers are increasing dramatically. The main reason I believe that’s happening is the violence in certain of those Central American countries is increasing dramatically…we have to provide the best emergency care we can provide…we have children five and six years old who have come up from Central America…

“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are. There are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back, but I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families…We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that’s contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”

This gets at exactly why this situation is so difficult. On the one hand, Clinton is right to note that the surge in unaccompanied migrants has many causes, such as violence in home countries. However, it is also true that one thing driving the spike really is the belief that children will be allowed to stay. Republicans blame this perception on Obama’s de-prioritization of deportation of the DREAMers, to buttress their broader case that Obama’s refusal to “enforce the law” is causing the crisis and is generally responsible for border chaos.

However, the kids are not eligible to stay under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And even if the mis-perception that they are eligible is a partial cause of the crisis, that is not a good argument, in and of itself, against the policy. Indeed, it’s telling that Republicans will not answer when asked directly whether they want Obama to deport more DREAMers and other low-level offenders from the interior.

We do know that human smuggling networks may be “falsely propagating the rumors to recruit clients, whose families pay large sums for the trip north.” And the administration — like Hillary — is working to send the message that these rumors are false.

The problem for Obama: He cannot lean as hard into the message that these kids need to be sent home as Hillary does. That’s because such talk would play into the “deporter in chief” narrative of his critics on the left. It’s also because deporting the kids immediately is simply not an option. In some cases, as Hillary says, that wouldn’t be a desirable outcome, given conditions at home. More broadly, current law requires them to be channeled into legal proceedings, and united with family members if possible while awaiting a court date. But courts are backlogged, and according to advocates, many don’t show up, meaning they essentially disappear. As best as I can determine, the administration has not released numbers on how many who arrived in this fashion showed up in court and/or have been sent home.

Indeed, while Hillary suggests sending the kids home is an option, the crisis has no easy solutions. Frank Sharry of America’s Voice tells me:

“It’s easy to say they should all be sent home. But that’s really hard to do. The law requires them to get their day in court, and many will qualify for some form of relief. You have to make sure these kids have an opportunity to present their situation in court, because they are more like refugees than immigrants. Making sure they show up would require holding all these kids in huge detention centers — rather than releasing them to family — and a massive infusion in judges to relieve the backlog of the courts, neither of which is possible under current budgetary and political restraints.”

Bottom line: Obama’s political and policy challenge is to strike the right balance between humanity and rule of law. Yet it isn’t clear there is an easy answer on either front, let alone a way to balance the two. And so, the crisis probably has to be managed as best as possible. But the “optics” of this are terrible, which will make it easier for Republicans to demagogue the issue to avoid participation in solving the short-term or long-term crisis.

It’s far easier for Hillary to strike this balance, because she only has to do so rhetorically. But Obama has to strike it in the real world. It’s not clear to me there’s a way to do this successfully. But it is clear the problem isn’t going away.

Texas leaders have announced a plan to beef up border security on Wednesday following the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America. (Reuters)
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.