Darrell Issa tries to exploit child crisis: The next ugly phase in immigration fight

With thousands of children streaming across the border, here's how GOP looks to capitalize on humanitarian calamity

Topics: Darrell Issa, President Obama, Barack Obama, Brian Kilmeade, Fox News Radio, Fox News, Immigration, Immigration Reform, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Eric Cantor, United Nations, Deportation, Bob Goodlatte, Editor's Picks,

Darrell Issa tries to exploit child crisis: The next ugly phase in immigration fightDarrell Issa (Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

A week ago on Brian Kilmeade’s Fox News Radio program, House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa made a serious charge against President Obama: that his policies on immigration were responsible for the deaths of children.

Asked by Kilmeade about the flood of unaccompanied immigrant minors from Central America coming into the border states, Issa said:

When the president made a decision that he was not going to enforce immigration laws … he created a real magnet to pull in a great deal of new illegals, particularly children who would qualify under the president’s own executive DREAM Act. When you become all three branches of government, this is what happens. The president can’t easily reverse himself, and yet this flood is going to mean children dying trying to get in, and more important, children coming here in the anticipation that somehow they’re going to be granted citizenship.

Eric Cantor’s unexpected downfall to an anti-immigration Tea Partyer caused a lot of buzzing about the future of comprehensive immigration reform, but this is the next phase in the fight over immigration. Republicans and conservatives are trying to capitalize on the emerging humanitarian crisis caused by tens of thousands of children streaming across the southern border, arguing that this is the consequence of Obama’s lax immigration policies. Some observers see this becoming a political jam for the White House as the president weighs easing deportations through executive action, but the best thing the White House could do is ignore the politics.

First let’s take a look at everything Issa got wrong (it’s quite a lot). Per Issa, Obama created a “magnet” for undocumented minors when he announced his executive action to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children. That policy change was announced in June 2012, so if what Issa said is true, then we would expect that the surge of undocumented minors crossing the border began sometime after then. But as Vox’s Dara Lind reports, “the current surge of child migrants began in October 2011,” a full eight months before Obama’s executive action was handed down.

Also, Issa claimed that the “magnet” was particularly strong for “children who would qualify under the president’s own executive DREAM Act.” This is a curious assertion since none of the kids who migrated after Obama’s policy change was announced will benefit from it. One of the qualifications for deferred action is that you have to have been physically present in the U.S. on or before June 15, 2012.

Lastly, the notion that the rush of underage migrants is an attempt to capitalize on relaxed deportation policies is at best an oversimplification, and obscures the reason so many kids are fleeing Central America. They’re running for their lives. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed migrant children El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and found that “no less than 58% of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” National Journal’s Brian Resnick talked to one of the report’s authors, who said that only nine of the kids interviewed said anything about the U.S. giving preferential treatment to children. This picture is muddied by reports like this one from the Washington Post, which notes a growing body of anecdotal evidence that misinformation about lax deportation policies for children is widespread in the migrants’ countries of origin. Regardless, the administration is handling the situation at the border as a humanitarian crisis and Obama has ordered FEMA and Homeland Security to help alleviate the crowding at detention facilities.

So the crisis at the border is real and calamitous, but the best evidence available suggests that it is largely due to factors other than immigration policies in the U.S. But that’s not the story Republicans want to tell. “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a June 2 statement.

The administration has indicated that it will take further action to ease deportations by the end of the summer if the House of Representatives doesn’t pass an immigration bill before then. Even before Eric Cantor lost his primary, every indication was that the House was not going to act and the Republicans would let the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive reform bill die. There’s no reason to think that situation has changed. By pinning the emerging humanitarian crisis at the border on Obama’s immigration policies, the Republicans are trying to cow him into not taking action.

Even if they succeed in turning this into a political problem, the best course of action for Obama to take is to simply ignore the Republicans. For all the grief he gets from the right for being soft on enforcement, the president has actually presided over record numbers of deportations, which has taken its toll both politically and in the real world. According to one study, 150,000 kids who are U.S. citizens lost a parent to deportation in 2012. All those deportations have eroded the reserve of goodwill and patience Obama enjoyed with immigration activists and Hispanic voters.

So for the president it comes down to making a choice. The Republicans, who will slag him on immigration no matter what he does, want him to abandon a policy course that they say will exacerbate a crisis involving young immigrants, even though there’s no real reason to think it would. He can do that, or he can take action to help alleviate an immigrant crisis he helped create – the breaking up of families through deportation – and mollify his restive supporters. The choice seems fairly obvious.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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