The humanitarian and immigration crisis unfolding at the southern border of the United States isn't just one of the most difficult issues that President Barack Obama has faced during his presidency. It's one of the most difficult issues the country has faced. And yet, instead of proposing realistic solutions to the crisis ("Deport them immediately!" being unrealistic, both legally and practically), Republicans have spent the past month using it to score political points, disingenuously calling it "Obama's Katrina" and complaining that the president didn't visit the border while fundraising in Texas.
Republicans have also blamed the crisis on Obama’s executive action on immigration—known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—that allowed undocumented minors who had been in the U.S. since 2007 to stay legally. But the fundamental issue is that the immigration system does not have the resources to deal with the more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the U.S. in fiscal year 2014 so far. A 2008 law requires that migrant children from countries other than Mexico and Canada receive a hearing before an immigration judge—and the vast majority of those crossing the border right now are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In other words, the government doesn’t have the legal authority to quickly return these minors to their home country and doesn’t have the resources to process them quickly.
Obama has proposed solutions. In late June, the White House requested more than $2 billion to help ease the immigration backload. Obama also, initially, asked that Congress reform the 2008 law so that the government could return the migrant children faster. Republicans said they were open to changing the law, but wanted the president to end DACA. “This trip [to the border] has confirmed that this is a disaster of President Obama’s own making,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said. “He has many tools that he could use right now to quell this activity.” Goodlatte, a Republican, is seeking a solution to stop more unaccompanied minors from entering the U.S., but he is ignoring the 50,000-plus children already here. Ending DACA won’t do anything to fix the backup in our immigration system. In addition, it’s unlikely that DACA was a major cause of the border crisis. Instead, severe violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has left these kids desperate for any way out.
On Tuesday, Obama upped his request to Congress, asking for $3.7 billion in additional funds. Republicans were not impressed. “The proposal that has come over for $3.7 billion has nothing to do with dispelling the idea … that if they come here they can stay,” Senator John McCain said. McCain’s comments echo Goodlatte’s. They only address the need to stop the flow of unaccompanied minors and ignore the more pressing matter at hand. McCain also demanded that the migrants be deported to their home country. Yet, he proposes no solution for how to reduce the backload in the immigration system so that those deportations can occur.
On Thursday, a new GOP talking point emerged: Republicans won’t give Obama a “blank check.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn both said it. House Speaker John Boehner proposed sending in the National Guard and then lambasted the president for not doing so. "In other words, he won't do it for the kids, it's all about politics," Boehner said. "We're not giving the president a blank check." It’s unclear how sending the National Guard to the border would “do it for the kids” or how a $3.7 billion funding request counted as a “blank check.” Republicans are once again refusing to confront the legitimate challenge of the unaccompanied minors who have already crossed the border.
Obama, on the other hand, has requested funds to deal with that exact problem. His request includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to care for these children while they’re in U.S. custody and $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to transport and detain them. Another $64 million is earmarked for the Justice Department to hire 40 more immigration judges. There’s also more than $400 million for increased border enforcement. Even so, immigration advocates worry that the $3.7 billion won’t be enough.
If Republicans object to this request, what exactly do they propose instead? How should we move through the huge backload of cases? Where should we hold the unaccompanied minors in the meantime? And how should we pay to transport them to their home countries? Reforming the 2008 law, as Republicans want, could help relieve pressure on the immigration system, but it could cause children who qualify—or who should qualify—for asylum to be turned away. Even so, there are more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody. Tweaking the law will not suddenly alleviate the problem.
In the wake of DACA and Obama’s upcoming executive action on immigration, the GOP was undoubtedly going to use this crisis to criticize Obama’s immigration policies. It would be political malfeasance if they didn’t. But along with scoring those political points, Republicans ought to propose more to help solve the crisis. Reforming the '08 law and screaming at Obama aren't enough.
Danny Vinik is a staff writer at The New Republic.