What Immigration Crisis?

Why Congress and President Obama are so eager to forget this summer’s “humanitarian crisis at the border.”

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
A mother and child, 3, from El Salvador, await transport to a processing center for undocumented immigrants after they crossed the Rio Grande into the United States in July.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, as unaccompanied Central American children poured into the United States at a rate of more than 350 per day, President Obama and Republicans agreed: This was a crisis that Washington needed to address immediately. And then nothing happened. Surprising almost no one, the least-productive Congress in history went home for the summer without striking any kind of deal. Obama was left without the extra $3.7 billion he said he needed to deal with the situation at the border, and the existing immigration law that both the president and his conservative critics blamed for the calamity remained untouched.

Two months later, the number of minors being arrested at the border has dropped significantly. But what was a problem then remains a problem now. The big difference is that the summer’s “humanitarian crisis,” once the subject of innumerable press conferences and op-eds, now goes mostly unmentioned in Washington. To be sure, one major reason for the relative silence is that our attention has been pulled to Ferguson, Missouri, and the Middle East. But given the rhetoric and handwringing on display in June, late August’s relative silence is staggering.

Obama did touch on the topic briefly during a press conference this Thursday, in the context of how the crisis will affect his plan to reshape the nation’s immigration system through executive action. As the president noted, the flood of migrant children has slowed substantially in recent weeks. According to the most recent data from the Department of Homeland Security, the border patrol apprehended 5,508 unaccompanied children in July—nearly half the total of the previous month and the fewest since February. Still, these are huge numbers. The amount of unaccompanied minors from Central America arrested at the border last month was more than the number of Central American minors taken into custody in a typical year as recently as a half-decade ago.

While Obama suggested the downward trend has continued this month, it’s too soon to say whether it will continue. One reason why is that it remains unclear exactly what’s behind the decrease. The administration, relatively quietly, took partial credit for the drop earlier this month, but two of the actions they touted—a crackdown on the criminal smuggling rings operating in Central America and “productive discussions” with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—happened toward the end of July, casting doubt on how much credit they deserve.

Complicating matters further is that, in a larger sense, it’s not even clear whether the decrease in children coming to the border is a good thing. There’s nothing to suggest that the root problems that drove many of the children from their homes in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been solved. All three nations have been ravaged by gang violence and remain among the most dangerous countries in the world. Boys who remain often have to decide between how they want to die: either at the hands of a gang they refuse to join, or at the hands of one of its rivals or the police if they do. Girls are often spared that choice, but too often nothing else. As one child who fled to the United States explained to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: “In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them, and throw them in plastic bags.”

Obama has touted a strategy of “aggressive deterrence,” one centered around the idea that if Central American parents know for certain that their children will be sent home almost as soon as they arrive, they’ll decide against sending them in the first place. Many immigration and child-rights advocates, though, believe Central American kids can make a legitimate legal claim to asylum if they reach U.S. soil. It’s difficult to feel good about cutting down migration, then, by telling the kids and their parents that they likely won’t receive asylum when it’s possible that’s just not true.

If you place the crisis within the narrowest possible frame—as Washington largely has—and limit it to what’s happening in the United States, things are still far from rosy. The recent trend aside, tens of thousands of the children are already in the system and are likely to remain stuck in immigration limbo for the foreseeable future. According to The Hill, the average immigration proceeding takes upward of 500 days. The White House is moving the Central American children to the front of the line, but it’s unclear how quickly they’ll cut through the existing backlog. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 37,477 of the child migrants have been released to a relative, family friend, or other adult sponsor already living in the United States. Several thousand more are currently living in one of a number of longer-term shelters spread across the country.

Even if most of these kids are no longer stuck in overcrowded shelters near the border, the government still has a massive problem on its hands. Under federal law, those children are eligible to attend public school while they remain in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. Communities that receive only a handful of children will likely be able to absorb the extra costs. But others—states like California, Florida, and Texas with large Central American communities—won’t have it so easy. The Miami-Dade County School District has already asked the federal government for more funds. Others are likely to do the same as school districts around the country find out how many children will be added to their rosters.

As Washington awaits the executive actions that Obama promised earlier this summer, the president remains in an awkward position. On one hand, he’s promising compassion for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. On the other, he’s continuing to tout his tough-love approach for the tens of thousands of children who have arrived at the border. Obama’s “aggressive deterrence” approach was centered on the notion that lawmakers could rewrite legislation to allow federal border patrol agents to quickly deport a migrant child if it isn’t immediately obvious that she will likely be granted asylum. In the absence of congressional action, his administration has taken whatever smaller steps it can to send that message, such as diverting resources to speed up the lengthy removal process and increasing the frequency of flights returning migrants home.

That awkwardness was on full display in June during a meeting with a dozen or so immigration groups that had been clamoring for Obama to take executive action. After the president delivered the message that the advocates had long waited to hear, that those actions were in the offing, the celebratory mood was quickly dampened when the issue of the migrant children came up. “Sometimes, there is an inherent injustice in where you are born, and no president can solve that, Obama said,” according to The Atlantic’s well-sourced tick-tock of that meeting.

While Washington appears eager to put this summer’s crisis in its rearview mirror, voters might not let that happen. The migrant children have proved to be a hot-topic at town hall meetings across the country, where conservative voters have criticized lawmakers for not doing enough to send them back home. Things for Obama, meanwhile, haven’t gone much smoother. On Thursday, the same day that the president largely brushed aside what remains of the crisis at the border, more than 140 immigration activists were arrested outside the White House in a choreographed stunt. The aim of that stunt: to pressure the president to go big with his executive actions and to stop the deportation of the Central American children.