Yesterday on MSNBC’s “UP with Steve Kornacki,” I asked USA Today columnist Raul Reyes a question that had vexed me since a producer raised it during an earlier planning meeting. Was Washington treating the crisis at the border as a domestic political issue instead of as an international refugee crisis that needed a foreign policy solution? Given all that we’ve seen, the answer is yes.
Last week saw an inordinate amount of time spent discussing whether President Obama should take Air Force One to the border for a look-see. My colleague Stephen Stromberg effectively took on this inane criticism. “When considering a trip, presidents must balance the extent to which their travel complicates the work of those dealing with crises more than it helps them,” he wrote in a blog post yesterday. “It’s perverse for critics to demand otherwise to satisfy some ancient requirement for leaders to ride at the head of their legions.”
If the Obama administration had been completely silent and inactive on the massive influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America his critics would have a point. Albeit, a small one visible with a magnifying glass. A senior administration official reminded me last week that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate and White House Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz have been “down there NUMEROUS times.” The official added that the Obama sent Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry to the region and has talked to Mexico President Pena Nieto about the situation. Then there’s the matter of the $3.7 billion emergency funding bill Obama wants Congress to approve.
The president asked for the money to help alleviate the crush of humanity at the southern border. Baying Republicans said no. The same people demanding that Obama do something are the same folks stopping him from doing anything. And it’s the height of irony, as Vox points out in an excellent explainer of the crisis, that some Republicans are urging the president to short circuit the overwhelmed immigration system by breaking the 2008 law at the center of the crisis rather than change it. Remember, Speaker Boehner is talking about suing the president because he allegedly “created his own law” by waiving the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act.
Imagine the outcry if the children in question were crossing the border from, say, the bombs and butchery in Syria to Jordan and were summarily sent back? Americans would be appalled. As Secretary of State John Kerry said at a World Refugee Day event last year, “In the United States of America, our country has had a tradition of welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and it runs deep in our roots. I think it’s safe to say that it’s part of our DNA as Americans and we’re proud of that.” (h/t Melissa Harris Perry).
At least Boehner acknowledges the true nature of what’s happening down South. “[W]e’ve got a true humanitarian crisis under way with children caught in the middle,” he said last week in advocating for the law to be changed to allow for the speedier deportation of children not from Mexico or Canada. But E.J. Dionne’s column today gets at the thorny dilemma highlighted by Boehner’s remarks, challenging us and our leaders to think better about how to solve it.
All the pressure now is to change the Wilberforce Act so it would no longer apply to Central American children. There’s a strong logic to this. The law does create a powerful incentive for unaccompanied minors from Central America (which is not that much farther away than Mexico) to seek entry, en masse, to our country.
But there is another logic: that the anti-trafficking law really did embody a “good” instinct by holding that we should, as much as we can, treat immigrant children with special concern. Do we rush to repeal that commitment the moment it becomes inconvenient? Or should we first seek other ways to solve the problem? Yes, policymakers should be mindful of unintended consequences. But all of us should ponder the cost of politically convenient indifference.
Yes, we should, as much as we can, treat immigrant children with special concern. Read Sonia Nazario’s riveting op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times about the children fleeing drug gangs in Honduras. An 11-year-old told her he was getting out of his Central American homeland “no matter what.” Read The Post’s Pamela Constable’s story about a Honduran mother who paid smugglers to shepherd her children through the dangerous journey from Honduras to the U.S. border. “If people call this a crime,” she asks, “why is it a crime to want to give your children a better future?” And listen to a 17-year-old tell Jose Diaz-Balart on MSNBC today about her recent trek to the U.S. “to save my own life.” When asked what she would say to Americans who say she and others must be sent back to their home countries “no ifs, ands or buts,” the young woman said through tears, “The only thing I would beg is please give me a chance to stay here.”
What’s sad is that her tears and those of thousands of other children will not be enough to move some of the stone hearts in the Capitol to solve this humanitarian crisis in a timely and humane manner. Nor will they do anything to jump start needed action on immigration reform in the U.S.
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