Amid all the noise over the crisis of minors crossing the border into South Texas, a basic fact about this debate has gotten lost: The humanitarian disaster we’re now seeing is actually an argument in favor of immigration reform, not against it.
Republicans have suggested the crisis proves they are right about Obama’s lawlessness (he cannot be trusted to enforce the law or secure the border, so they shouldn’t make a deal with him) and that the general promise of reform, or “amnesty,” is acting as a magnet for kids. All of this makes it more certain they will not embrace reform this year. But this has it exactly backwards. The crisis underscores the need for reform.
In the days ahead, you may see Dems amplify this case. Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, who has been working on this issue for a decade, offers this simple explanation for why the crisis is an argument for action:
“If Congress wants to help solve the border migrants crisis, the single most consequential thing it could do would be to pass the Senate immigration bill or something similar in the House. Nothing else would do as much to clear up the confusion in Central America about how our system works or do as much to make clear that recent arrivals will not be able to stay under some form of future legalization. Congress will have spoken with a loud and clear voice, making it near impossible for criminal elements south of the border to exploit our current inadequate system for their own ends.”
The main GOP argument has been that Obama’s refusal to enforce immigration law is responsible for the crisis, because it has created a draw for parents to risk sending kids north, on the belief they will be allowed to stay. The dishonest version of this, offered by Ted Cruz, posits that Obama’s lawlessness in the form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (deprioritizing the deportation of DREAMers) is to blame. But under DACA the newer arrivals are not eligible to stay, and misrepresentations to the contrary do not reflect on the substantive worth of that policy either way.
The fair, reasonable version of this argument, made by Ross Douthat, is that the general promise of reform passing sooner or later is a draw for kids to cross now, because it’s sensible to gamble they will probably qualify for legal status down the line.
This is a legitimate worry. But it elides a key point, which is that passing reform would help remove one reason for current crossings: Confusion about U.S. law over the long term. As the Associated Press details, some kids are crossing now because current law requires them to get channeled into legal proceedings, and backlogged courts ensure it will take forever until their case comes up. Republicans like Bob Goodlatte rightly cite this as a cause of the crisis. One solution would be to change the law so the kids no longer get to present their case in court. But that risks deporting select kids who genuinely qualify for relief from deportation for humanitarian reasons.
And so, the better approach, if folks are indeed gambling kids will be granted legal status at some point later, is to pass the Senate bill or something similar now, because that would clarify that those arriving after December 31, 2011 would never qualify for legal status. As it happens, under current law new arrivals will never qualify for legal status. But having this clarified as part of reform — which would get extensive coverage throughout Latin America — would further dispel confusion. Should we only secure the border now, and defer legalization until the border is under control? That would only perpetuate the very problem critics decry — that the vague promise of some kind of legalization later is an incentive to smuggle kids in now. Therefore, legalization — clarifying who is legal and who isn’t — should be part of any solution now, too.
Critics will object that some kids are not showing up in court at all, and instead are disappearing — and that the debate over legalization is irrelevant to that problem. This is true. But this problem, too, is an argument for reform now. The Senate bill would increase resources for expediting court proceedings, and a shorter wait time would make it easier to track kids and make it harder for them to melt away. Even if the Senate bill is a nonstarter for House Republicans, if they actually wanted to address the current crisis, they would theoretically be open to a course of action that would dramatically ratchet up these resources, even if that required some sort of broader reform deal (remember, GOP leaders themselves admit the broader status quo is untenable).
In short, if our system were functional, the current crisis would make an immigration reform deal more likely, not less. But House Republicans aren’t going to make any such deal, because it remains unclear whether they can accept reform that includes legalization under any circumstances, and that is defining their response to everything immigration related. Which only underscores once again the degree to which they have essentially abdicated playing any role whatsoever in solving the broader immigration crisis the country faces.