When a do-little Congress went home without addressing the crisis caused by the flight of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America across U.S. borders, immense strains were placed on state-supervised programs that provide social services, job training and preventive health care for immigrants — legal and otherwise — who are already living in the United States.
President Barack Obama sought $3.7 billion to deal with the influx of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Congress recessed without providing any money, leaving a $94 million shortfall in what is known as the “unaccompanied alien minor program.” In order to care for the refugees, the federal government is taking money from useful existing programs, many administered by the states, pending court decisions on the immigrants’ fate.
Morse, the NCSL and this publication (State Net Capitol Journal) are nonpartisan. But whether one is partisan or not, it’s disappointing that the federal government once again dropped the ball on immigration reform.
It’s not just the plight of desperate children fleeing violence in Central America.
The absence of a comprehensive federal immigration law also means that growers in some Western states lack sufficient labor. A farmer in Santa Maria, in the heart of California’s bountiful strawberry industry, was recently asked by a television reporter if the state’s extreme drought was his worst problem. The farmer surprised the reporter by answering: “No, the shortage of labor.”
Guest-worker programs allowing temporary importation of foreign agricultural labor were once the norm in the Unites States. States have the capability to run such programs on their own, but when Utah proposed doing this a few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — correctly — that immigration is a federal responsibility. A shortage in farm labor isn’t headline news but translates into higher prices for fruits and vegetables in the grocery store.
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers are scrambling to hire engineers, who are in high demand and short supply. Presently, only 85,000 visas are allowed each year for importing engineers and other high-skilled workers.
The absence of a comprehensive federal law also encourages unequal treatment of the estimated 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. A dozen states and the District of Columbia and 13 cities have “sanctuary” policies that provide aid and shelter to these immigrants, while other states and cities have made it clear that they are not welcome.
The more welcoming states have attempted to fill the vacuum caused by federal inaction. Eleven states and the District of Columbia now offer driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Sixteen states offer in-state tuition rates for higher education. No state did either five years ago.
But even the most generous states know their authority is limited by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the federal government has primacy on immigration. That’s why many states backed a comprehensive federal bill.
The hope for such legislation seemed bright early in the year, especially after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would work with the Obama administration to accomplish it. Rubio was promptly denounced by conservatives, many of whom oppose a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Liberals should have rallied to Rubio’s defense but didn’t. Many of them want a more expansive plan than the one he was offering.
With little support from any quarter, Rubio backed off, and the immigration debate degenerated into its usual partisan bickering. Partisanship was especially evident in response to this summer’s influx of Central American children. Some 63,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the southern border since last October; another 63,000 children arrived at the border accompanied by adults.
Republicans blame Obama, saying the influx was encouraged by his 2012 executive order that allowed immigrants brought to this country as children — the so-called “Dreamers” — to remain here. An estimated half-million immigrants have taken advantage of this order, although their future is uncertain. In issuing the order, Obama emphasized it was not a path to citizenship.
But although the influx of children reached crisis proportions only this summer, it began in 2009, spurred by a bill passed with bipartisan support in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush. That measure, designed to halt sex trafficking, contained a provision assuring immigrants of a court hearing before they could be deported. This established a ludicrous double standard under which unauthorized immigrants from most countries are entitled to a hearing, while immigrants from Canada and Mexico are not. The year after this bill passed, 20,000 children from Central America fled to the United States.
During his campaign for the presidency in 2008, Obama promised he would submit comprehensive immigration legislation in his first year in office. Struggling with economic problems, he ignored his promise and instead stepped up deportations of unauthorized immigrants, the vast majority to Mexico. The administration has deported more than 2 million immigrants, a record.
Latino groups have been critical of these deportations, and they are not alone. The Economist, for instance, excoriated the Obama “deportation machine” and called him the “deporter in chief.” Obama has since eased deportations and hinted he might use executive action to allow more unauthorized immigrants to remain legally in the United States.
The surge of children supposedly was encouraged by smugglers, who spread the rumor that children reaching the United States would find safe haven. But the root cause is violence in Central America. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, more than 19 times the U.S. rate.
The U.S. response to the surge has been more political than effective. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, sent 1,000 National Guard troops to a border that is already heavily militarized. This didn’t change the equation on the border because most of the children were already giving themselves up once they reached the United States.
Obama didn’t change the equation either. He asked Congress not only for money but for authority to bypass the 2008 law and deport the children without a hearing. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, refused to do this. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives provided a pittance for refugee aid, knowing that its bill had no chance of Senate passage. Overall, the Washington gamesmanship did not reflect well on either party or branch of government.
States, cities and the child refugees were left, in the British phrase, to muddle through. It is pot luck for the refugees. Roughly half have been housed by relatives. The rest have been placed by a U.S. government agency in shelters of varying capacity and quality, helped by churches and other nonprofit organizations.
Although some towns noisily refused to accept any refugees, staging protests that were heavily covered on television, many cities in border states, including Los Angeles and San Antonio, quietly opened their doors. New York City took the useful step of appropriating nearly $5 million to provide immigrants with legal counsel. Although refugees are entitled to a hearing before a federal judge, they are not guaranteed an attorney, and most appear at their proceedings without one.
With Congress in recess, the next move in the immigration drama is up to Obama, who is reported to be considering an executive order that would permit as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants to remain in the United States. This would raise constitutional issues and prompt determined opposition that would not be limited to Republicans. The Washington Post editorially noted that legislative power is vested in Congress and said a unilateral action by Obama would “tear up the Constitution.”
A constitutional confrontation might fire up the Democratic and Republican political bases for the midterm elections, but it would be damaging to the country. Far better would be a bipartisan legislative solution that responds to both conservative and liberal concerns by tightening border security, establishing a path to citizenship for immigrants already living here, and creating a guest worker program.
These key elements of immigration reform have long been recognized, most recently in Rubio’s now-abandoned bill. What’s needed in Washington are legislators on both sides with the courage to compromise and put immigration reform above politics.
— Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.