57,000 Little Problems

How does a do-nothing Congress solve the border crisis? Take a guess.

Child Border Crisis 3.
Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18, 2014.

Pool photo by Eric Gay/Reuters

Do you remember the angle on immigration reform everyone used to agree on? Easy: It was “the children.” Until the middle of June, the least controversial legalization proposal (not quite a bill) in Congress was citizenship for children brought illegally to the United States by their parents. Even some Republicans who’d opposed the Dream Act, which would have enabled this, had “evolved” with the years.

“It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” said President Obama in 2012. “They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”

The president said that when announcing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which only lifted the threat of deportation for people under 31 and residing in the United States since before 2007. This proved to be fantastic politics, bolstering his re-election—which inspired a panic among “reform conservatives,” which is one reason that the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act last year. Think of the children! We can’t deport the children!

Perhaps this wasn’t the right way to think of the problem. Cantor lost his primary, thanks in part to his immigration waffling. It was around that time—perfect news-cycle synchronicity—that the surge of illegal child immigration across the Mexican border was elevated from local news story to national crisis.

It’s estimated that 57,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since October. These days they’re not eliciting much sympathy at all. Protesters are blocking buses full of kids leaving detention centers from entering a border station. Reformers and restrictionists have retreated into their silos. The pundit class has found a silo of its own, weather-beaten but sturdy, where it can ask the key question: Is this Obama’s Katrina? Some say yes; others disagree.

You’d hardly notice that Congress is sitting on an immigration bill that would have funded a “border surge,” doubling the size of the border fence from 350 to 700 miles and more than doubling the presence of border agents—18,500 to 38,500. That’s not saying the bill would have prevented this crisis, which has a lot to do with a (previously) uncontroversial 2008 law that offered humanitarian protections to young border-crossers from Central America. That was a for-the-children measure, too, aimed at sex traffickers and slavers, and there’s no appetite for it anymore.

No, the argument restrictionists are making, with confidence, is that Obama’s loose touch sparked the crisis. It’s a “crisis of his own making,” according to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, because the president had been “promising amnesty” and ignoring the border. “We either have an incredibly inept administration,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry this week, “or they’re in on this somehow or another.”

The theory is that the administration is not above stoking a crisis and that it’s actually played games like this before, as when it allowed loose guns to be “walked” into Mexico for the eventual purpose of scaring Americans into backing gun control. (This was and is the National Rifle Association’s theory.) And the theorizing has been pretty one-sided; Republican reformers say that the eruption of a border crisis makes a liar out of the Obama Department of Homeland Security.

“It hurts,” said Sen. John McCain to reporters on Tuesday, “because we have not taken the measures necessary to have a secure border—although the issue here is not a secure border. The children are just showing up. We need more National Guard or whatever it is. We need a change in policy. The message has to go: ‘If you cross the border illegally, you will be returned immediately.’ ”

McCain was reacting to the administration’s announcement that it would seek $3.7 billion in emergency funds to beef up border security and speed up deportations. (As long as we’re talking Katrina, that crisis led to a $51.8 billion recovery bill.) On the Hill, this was greeted with a synchronized shrug. “People don’t believe that the laws are being enforced,” explained Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the authors of the Senate’s 2013 reform bill. “They never believed it beforehand. They have good reason not to believe it now.”

The way Rubio talked to reporters, you could be forgiven for thinking that “comprehensive reform,” the great hope of 2013, was alive. “I think that the only way you’re ever going to get the votes in Washington to move forward on immigration is through a three-step process,” starting with enforcement, said Rubio.  Did that mean passing the supplemental $3.7 billion? Not as it stood: “Let’s not just throw money at it. Let’s put in place the sorts of technological things and increased manpower similar to the bill we passed in the Senate.” Did this mean Rubio’s immigration bill? No, it could mean a smaller bill, dealing with security and nothing else.

“If they pass it out of the House,” said Rubio, “I think we can potentially pass it out of the Senate, unless the Democrats decide to object to it, because it doesn’t have legalization and all the other things associated with it.”

In a small way, the overwhelming Capitol Hill cynicism about how to respond to the border crisis is healthy. Panicking after a crisis and passing whatever’s on the shelf gave us the Patriot Act. Panicking about sex trafficking—why, that’s part of what caused this crisis in the first place. It’s just striking that the story of children fleeing horror, and getting stuck on the wrong side of the border, has hardened the positions every member of Congress had before the crisis.

Every member of Congress, but not everyone in politics. This week, on his radio show/Web TV network, Glenn Beck announced plans to bring trailers full of water, teddy bears, and soccer balls to the border. “I’ve never taken a position more deadly to my career than this,” he said. “Anyone, left or right, seeking political gain at the expense of these desperate, vulnerable, poor, and suffering people are reprehensible.”

But it was the left that truly worried Beck. He needed to act, he said, because the border crisis could turn into a battle. He’d opposed Cliven Bundy’s standoff when it threatened to become a casus belli for a crackdown, for Obama’s “fundamental transformation” of America.

“Do we rise up so the top can come down and the inside out, and they have their fundamental transformation?” Beck asked his viewers. “And they have the heart, the heart of America?”

He couldn’t risk that. Think of the children.