Why There Are No Easy Answers to the Latest Border Dilemma

After the 2012 election, Republicans realized that if they were going to have any chance of winning back the White House, they'd have to stanch their electoral bleeding among Hispanic voters, and several high-profile GOP politicians suggested that passing comprehensive immigration reform was a necessary (if perhaps not sufficient) step toward doing so. Nothing happened, of course, because House Republicans have little interest in seeing comprehensive reform. So we entered a sort of holding pattern, in which Democrats criticize Republicans for their unwillingness to act on legislation, and Republicans try to argue that their refusal is really Barack Obama's fault. First they said they couldn't pass reform until Obama "secured the border" (more on that in a moment) and then they said they couldn't pass reform because Obama is so lawless and tyrannical that they didn't trust him to enforce whatever they passed.

All that was fine as long as the problems of the immigration system remained chronic and not acute. Now we do have an acute problem, the wave of children coming from Central America. Republicans, however, are still acting as though we only have a chronic problem. They're actually spending time doing things like criticizing Obama for not going to the border for a photo-op, as though that would make some kind of difference in how this problem gets resolved. And that's because they don't seem to have any idea what we should actually do about these children.

Time for a bit of background. The trouble we're having now is really two problems coming together: an increase in the number of children from Central America making this journey, and a system that doesn't have the resources to handle them once they get here. A number of conditions are combining to create the former: desperate poverty and violence in the three countries most of these kids are coming from (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), false rumors that children who come today will get to stay under the administration's Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals policy (which actually only applies to people who came to the US before June 2007), and the more accurate belief that if you make it to the US you might get to stay anyway, at least for a while until your deportation hearing.

And that's the second part: because of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act—a law passed in 2008 with the support of many Republicans (it was named for a 19th century British evangelical abolitionist) and signed by President George W. Bush—children stopped at the border can't just be shoved on a bus back home. They have to be given a deportation hearing, and until that hearing occurs, the law says the child must be "promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child." The law also says that "[a] child shall not be placed in a secure facility absent a determination that the child poses a danger to self or others or has been charged with having committed a criminal offense." In other words, we can't just lock them up, and if they have some family in the U.S., placing the minor with them is going to be "the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child."

Even before the increased number of children coming to the border, the system for processing these cases and holding deportation hearings was strained, and it could take months or even years before the hearing would occur. The White House now says that "most" of these children will probably end up being deported, but they're going to end up in the U.S. for a while before that happens.

So the question is, what do we do now? One thing we do know is that crying "Secure the border!" doesn't help much. We've already invested hugely in securing the border; there are now twice as many Border Patrol agents as there were ten years ago (the increase started under Bush and has continued under Obama). The problem isn't going to be solved with more agents or more fences; If a kid has gotten all the way from Tegucigalpa to the Rio Grande and he runs into a fence, he isn't just going to turn around and walk 1,500 miles back. Eventually he'll find a way in, and you'll have to deal with him when he does. And these kids actually want to be caught; they're not trying to sneak in.

The administration today made a request of Congress for $3.7 billion to handle the emergency: "Funds would be allocated to send more immigration judges to the southern border, build additional detention facilities and add border patrol agents. The move is aimed at more quickly deporting the tens of thousands of women and children who have entered the country illegally across the border, most of them in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas."

That will help manage and expedite this immediate influx of cases. But in the long run, the chief driver of undocumented immigration is out of our control. The reason we aren't faced with hundreds of thousands of Canadians sneaking over our northern border is that life in Canada is quite pleasant. People come from the south because the difficult and dangerous prospect of making it to America and then trying to build a life once you get here seems less frightening than staying where they are. And there's only so much we can do about that.

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