In 2009, President Obama and the Democrats made a bet. Coming on the heels of George W. Bush’s failed push for immigration reform, they wagered that adopting a hawkish stance on enforcement would coax Republicans into passing a broad immigration-reform bill — one that would further increase enforcement and grant legal status to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country.
The president ramped up deportations, sending 2 million unauthorized immigrants to their home countries in the last five years. He expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s “Secure Communities” program, partnering with local and state law-enforcement agencies to arrest and detain unauthorized immigrants. He doubled the number of agents at the border. Under his watch, spending on immigration enforcement has risen to $18 billion per year — more than the total sum of all other federal law-enforcement efforts combined. In part because of these investments, as well as the recession in the U.S. and improving economic conditions in Mexico, net migration from our southern neighbor has fallen to zero.
But the president has lost his bet. It turns out that no amount of money or resources is enough to sway Republicans. Since the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill last summer, House Speaker John Boehner have demagogued about Obama’s failure to “secure the border” all the while failing to put forth a single bill to fix what policy-makers on both sides of the aisle agree is a “broken” system.
Which brings us to the current crisis. Now, a wave of gang-related violence in Central America and opportunistic cartel dons looking to profit from the misery they’ve spawned have created a humanitarian crisis at the border. Since October, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 52,000 unaccompanied kids from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, who are now being detained in facilities across the Southwest and, unless things change, will wait an average of two years in the backlog to see an immigration judge.
Obama’s response? Continue to play the same maddening game that’s failed to convince Republicans and only infuriated the immigrant-rights community. Last week, the White House sought a change in the law that would allow kids to be removed from the country as quickly as possible. Currently, Border Patrol can ask unaccompanied minors from Mexico if they’d like to waive their right to see an immigration judge and return to their home country voluntarily, which speeds up the process of their removal.
But a 2008 law passed under George W. Bush requires that children from non-bordering countries be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services for care and then go before a judge. The reasoning behind this is that, unlike with Mexican children who can be handed over safely to officials from their home country at the border, that isn’t possible with kids who hail from farther away. Obama was asking for the authority to treat kids from Central America the same as those from neighboring countries.
After fierce criticism, the administration backed off the harsh proposal. But yesterday, the White House announced it was asking Congress for $3.7 billion for more border patrol agents, immigration judges, detention facilities, and aerial surveillance. “It is a priority for us to make sure that it is both clear to people in the country that we will remove children,” said a White House official. “And that we in fact do that much more swiftly and efficiently than we are doing now.”
But the wave of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. was not caused by lack of enforcement—in fact, many of the unaccompanied minors have turned themselves in upon arrival—and more enforcement will do little to solve the current crisis.
A certain number of the 52,000 kids—and the thousands more to come—are indeed refugees fleeing violence in their home countries. The other portion are economic refugees whose parents are under the mistaken impression that their children will be granted citizenship simply by showing up at the border. The humanitarian crisis has no straightforward solution, but there is a reason we have asylum laws and immigration courts: to sort these issues out, and provide refuge to those who need it.
The Obama administration’s goal should not be to remove the children as soon as possible. Instead, it should direct the bulk of the funds it is asking for to bolster the severely overburdened immigration courts, which are best suited to determine how each child’s case should be handled, whether they qualify for asylum or should be returned home. It should do whatever possible to make this process expeditious and provide the kids with proper care and legal counsel.
Our immigration system has many problems. We only allot 5,000 visas for unskilled immigrants per year (that’s not per country, but overall). Countries like Iceland with a population of around 250,000 get the same number of visas as Mexico, which has a population of 113 million. Having such narrow channels for legal immigration has led to massive illegal immigration; the courts are backlogged for years. Lack of enforcement, however, is not the problem.
Only a massive overhaul—one that takes into account economic demand and deals with the undocumented immigrants who have been here for decades—will restore sanity to our immigration system. Obama has spent his entire presidency increasing enforcement. It neither prevented the current crisis nor convinced Republicans to act.