The Obama administration is attempting to move swiftly to deal with a rash of undocumented immigrant children who have flowed over the U.S.-Mexican border this year, as the situation becomes more dire at a politically sensitive time.
The White House on Sunday announced it would add a fourth stop — Guatemala — to Vice President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip through Central and South America. The administration hinted it is taking this step in light of a growing perception minors are crossing the border because they feel they will not be deported by the administration.
“These migrant children are not eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, what’s called the DACA process, or pending immigration legislation,” a senior Obama administration official said Sunday, emphasising similar comments last week from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
“We ask families and communities to think twice before sending their children on this very dangerous journey. This is an important factor in thinking about how to address this problem,” the official said.
The administration official was talking about the 2012 action President Barack Obama took to lessen deportations for children who had come to the U.S. through no fault of their own and who were in good standing. It was Obama’s version of the DREAM Act, which failed to pass Congress during Obama’s first term.
Critics say Obama’s 2012 action is the main cause of the border crisis. This year, the number of migrant children U.S. officials will apprehend along the border is expected to triple, according Customs and Border Protection. According to the memo, more than 90,000 migrant children are expected to be apprehended this year — and possibly as many as 140,000 next year. The number of unaccompanied children grabbed by border agents already grew by more than 10,000 from 2012 to 2013.
The situation is rapidly becoming a humanitarian crisis. Every day, hundreds of children cross the border, mostly making their way from violence-stricken areas in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They have overwhelmed Border Patrol resources significantly in the Rio Grande area, and many migrants have been sent to processing facilities in Arizona.
The causes for the influx are many, but a large portion are children fleeing increased drug and gang violence. The White House has said some are also coming in to reunite with their families, something Republicans have used to criticise the Obama administration as it considers unilateral action to ease deportations.
“Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, in a statement last week.
The White House had pushed back on that claim — until now. Their reversal comes after a Border Patrol memo, obtained and distributed by the conservative Center for Immigration Studies said the main reason migrants traveled to the U.S. was to “to take advantage of the ‘new’ U.S. law that grants a free pass or permit” from the U.S. government. Other reasons included gang violence, economic opportunity, and domestic abuse.
The situation threatens to put President Barack Obama in a political bind, as he considers whether to bypass Congress on immigration reform.
In March, Obama directed Johnson, his Homeland Security Secretary, to lead an administrative review of whether deportation policies could be made more “humane,” a move aimed at reassuring immigration activists. It had been largely expected Obama will take unilateral action to lessen deportations if Congress doesn’t act.
Even Republicans sympathetic to immigration-related legislation have suggested it would be a mistake for Obama to take any action of his own on deportations in light of the current border crisis. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), two of the sponsors of the Senate immigration bill that passed last year, sent a letter to Obama last week outlining their concerns about the crisis and its effects on Arizona.
“For too long this administration has been preoccupied with telling Americans the border is as secure as ever. These events prove it is not,” the senators said.
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