WASHINGTON — The surge of young unaccompanied migrants crossing the United States border illegally has complicated what was already a contentious debate in Congress, where the Republican-led House of Representatives passed legislation last week that Democratic lawmakers denounced and said is dead on arrival in the Senate.
“It’s very sad Congress couldn’t work together to deal with this international concern and serve the common good. Meanwhile, kids are suffering,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, a University of Notre Dame professor who has written extensively about and produced documentaries on immigration.
Father Groody told the Register he was disappointed with the two immigration-related bills the House passed last Friday, just before lawmakers went on their five-week summer recess. The legislation allocates $694 million in funding — far less than the $3.7 billion that President Barack Obama requested — to pay for border security and immigration-related operations in the last two months of the current federal budget year.
The GOP bills also allocate $35 million to reimburse states for National Guard deployments along the border, amends a 2008 anti-trafficking law to allow Central-American minors to be sent back home without deportation hearings and ends Obama’s policy of allowing people who immigrated illegally to the United States before 2007 as children — so-called “Dreamers” — to remain in the country.
The House passed its legislation a day after the Republican leadership withdrew an earlier supplemental funding bill. The GOP leadership crafted the two new bills after meeting with conservative and tea-party Republicans who had revolted against the original legislation for not having sufficiently stringent border-security provisions.
Democratic House leaders and immigration advocates condemned the GOP bills, warning Republicans that they would alienate Latino voters for years to come.
Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate left Washington without passing an immigration bill. Democratic Senate leaders killed their bill, which would have provided $2.7 billion in emergency funding for federal immigration agencies, after failing to get support from Senate Republicans and centrist Democrats.
“It was a lame effort by Congress at the very end of their session,” Father Groody said. “Right now, the parties are not working together for the common good, and they are really only intent on making the other party look bad. And meanwhile, these kids are suffering. It’s really pathetic.”
Support for the House Bill
However, Marguerite Telford, the communications director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that argues for a stricter national immigration policy, told the Register that the House legislation is constructive with its measures to increase money for border agencies while also taking steps to discourage illegal immigration.
“Unlike the Senate bill, it is short, concise, detailed. It does what it says it’s going to do and nothing more,” said Telford, who described herself as a practicing Catholic who disagrees with the more lenient immigration stance articulated by most of the nation’s bishops. Telford said the House bills have zero chance of becoming law — Democrats control the Senate, and Obama would surely veto the GOP bills — but she commended Republican House leaders for their position.
“The House did what they could to send a message to Central America not to take the dangerous journey, not to risk it, that we have laws, and we are going to enforce them,” Telford said. “That’s the only thing that will stop the flow: to know that when they get here, they’ll be turned right back around.”
Since October 2013, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America’s Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Many of the minors say they are fleeing violent drug cartels and street gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street that threaten to kill entire families if their young sons and daughters refuse to cooperate with criminal activity.
Father Groody was among a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that visited Central America last November to study the reasons for the mass youth migration. The USCCB’s report attributes cartel and gang violence to be the “overriding factor,” with other “push factors” that include a lack of economic opportunities and the desire to reunify with adult relatives already living in the United States.
“People really have no idea what it’s like back in Central America,” Father Groody said. “We saw the extent of the violence, the extent of how much the gangs and cartels have infiltrated all sectors of society. Honduras, for all practical purposes, is a failed state. Guatemala and El Salvador are failing states. I don’t think most Americans understand that.”
Critics, though, also attribute the influx to Obama’s policies that have created a perception in Central America that children will be welcome to stay even if they cross the border without documents. Telford said the illegal border crossings have skyrocketed since Fiscal Year 2012, when the Obama administration issued its "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," a directive that federal authorities show prosecutorial discretion for individuals who migrated to the United States as children without legal permission.
“Obama has raised expectations that you can come in; you can get a green card; you can work and stay here,” Telford said. “It will be very interesting to see what the president does, because he raised such high expectations for all the people who are here illegally and for those who are busy coming in.”
Obama, Boehner and Bishop Elizondo
Obama told reporters during a White House press conference last Friday that he would have to “act alone” without congressional approval because the federal government does not have enough resources and is running out of money to make sure the migrant children are properly housed. He also said that there are enough immigration judges to hear their cases. In addition, the president attacked House Republicans for “not even trying to actually solve the problem.”
“This is a message bill that they couldn’t quite pull off yesterday, so they made it a little more extreme, so maybe they can pass it today — just so they can check a box before they’re leaving town for a month,” Obama said. “And this is on an issue that they all insisted had to be a top priority.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in prepared remarks that the House passed “a responsible bill” to secure the southern border and to ensure the “safe and swift return” of the migrant children to their home countries.
“If President Obama needs these resources, he will urge Senate Democrats to put politics aside, come back to work and approve our bill,” said Boehner, who is Catholic.
Meanwhile, the nation’s Catholic bishops have continued to speak out for humane government policies to assist the young, undocumented minors. In a July 24 prepared statement, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and the head of the USCCB Migration Committee, reaffirmed the USCCB’s opposition to amending laws to speed up the deportation of children without the benefit of immigration hearings.
“We oppose linking changes to the law — changes which could send children back to harm — to the funding bill, which is needed to humanely respond to this situation,” Bishop Elizondo said. “Families, as well, should receive a fair hearing of their asylum claims.”
In addition, Father Groody said there are “bigger issues at stake” in the national immigration debate.
“If the sight of suffering children is not enough to move our hearts, then there are bigger issues in America than immigration reform,” said Father Groody, who suggested that if governments do not address the root causes of migration, then the United States will never have enough resources to secure the border.
“I don’t think we are thinking comprehensively enough about what comprehensive immigration reform means,” Father Groody added.
“This super surge of illegal immigration has made life a lot more complicated for [Obama], because the numbers are so big; and the way this was handled, the American people couldn’t ignore it anymore,” said Telford, who argues that amending the 2008 anti-trafficking law to allow children from countries other than Mexico or Canada to be immediately deported will free up the nation’s immigration courts.
Said Telford, “If we allowed everyone who came across, and we’re talking tens of thousands, to have a hearing, then we’re looking at five to seven years to actually get through all those hearings.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.