The recent surge of unaccompanied children from Central America arriving at our borders, about 52,000 since October, has been declared a humanitarian crisis… and could not have come at a worse time.
For the last few months, President Obama has been trying to balance our country’s humanitarian interest in keeping families together with enforcement of the law. Earlier this year, Obama was famously labeled “deporter-in-chief” for his record-making deportation numbers. In response to that charge and pressure from immigration advocates, he ordered Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to review our country’s deportation policies with an eye towards making them more humane. But by the end of May, Obama directed Mr. Johnson to delay making any recommendations based on his review until after the summer to give House Republican leaders space to act on immigration reform legislation. With that came the implicit promise that should the House not act on immigration reform by August, the President would move forward on executive action to slow or halt deportations.
And then the influx occurred, overwhelming our borders and our resources. The extreme violence and poverty of the northern triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—have driven children, some as young as 5 years old, to make the dangerous journey north alone. Another driving force is the perception, one that is misguided yet exploited, that children arriving here alone will be given a “permit” to stay. This has only fueled the Republicans’ ire with the President and his immigration policies and made the possibility of immigration reform all but dead for this year.
Obama responded by announcing last week that he would keep his promise and act unilaterally on some of the recommendations resulting from Mr. Johnson’s deportation policy review. This could mean deportation relief for a larger group of people, possibly parents of those already granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
For the recent arrivals of children from Central America, however, he has today requested an additional $3.7 billion in aid. Possible modification of our current laws to speed up the return of these children has also been discussed.
Why the difference in approach? Timing is everything.
At another time, the President may have responded differently. The surge of children arriving at our borders is a humanitarian crisis indeed and has been likened to refugees fleeing war. The President could treat them as such, by considering humanitarian parole or Temporary Protected Status ("TPS") for example, as options in addition to what is currently available to these children. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve opened our borders to children during a crises—we’ve helped Jewish children during World War II, Cuban children during the Castro regime in the early 1960s and children from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, to name just a few.
But the timing could not have been worse. The fact that a false perception of our laws has played a part in the children’s decision to come here has also worked against them. At a time when Obama is struggling to maintain the delicate balance of our country’s humanitarian interests with enforcement of our laws, at a time when our immigration system could not be more broken, when our resources more strained, Obama does not want to be viewed as contributing in way to our existing immigration and border issues, let alone be responsible in any way for children making the incredibly risky decision to travel to our borders alone. And so these children will not benefit from any measure providing reprieve from deportation beyond what our laws currently provide. What remains to be seen is whether these laws will ultimately be modified or curtailed and to what extent, and whether they will be carried out with due process and humanely.
*Updated to reflect that modifications to our current laws has only been discussed, not formally requested. Also, TPS and humanitarian parole are not forms of relief immediately available but is something the author believes should be considered as options for those thay may not qualify for available forms of relief (asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, T-visas or U-visas) but where repatriation would mean returning children and families to potentital danger and unsafe and unstable environments.