In the quest for simple answers to complex problems, one irrational explanation for the humanitarian crisis at our southern border demands an unqualified refutation.
That would be the conspiracy theory being peddled by conservatives that President Obama purposefully engineered the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America to pressure Congress into enacting immigration reform.
The idea is absurd bordering on Palinesque.
The theory’s most prominent adherent is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who expounded last month on Fox News:
“We either have an incredibly inept administration, or they’re in on this somehow or another. I hate to be conspiratorial, but how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico, then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”
Perry has not elaborated on what the president’s “fairly coordinated effort” would involve, but his pandering to immigration hardliners is to be expected.
As my colleague Cathleen Decker recently pointed out, if Perry hopes to be a viable Republican presidential candidate in 2016, he has some fence mending to do. You may recall that the Texas governor, who in 2012 never quite seemed in control of his message or mouth, alienated many in the conservative base when he revealed an unacceptable smidgen of compassion for children brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
In a debate with other GOP presidential hopefuls, he told his opponents that if they didn’t support in-state college tuition for such kids, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Later, he backtracked, saying he’d been “a bit over-passionate.”
A less wacky corollary of Perry’s conspiracy theory holds that Obama’s “lax” immigration policies are responsible for the widespread belief of Central American parents that their children will be entitled to stay in the U.S. if they get a toehold.
“They have gotten an impression that if you send your child on that journey ... once they get here they can stay,” New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said at a Senate homeland security hearing last week.
Likewise, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, also blamed the president for creating the crisis, “by stating the minors and families are not a priority for removal.”
It is true, as my colleague Brian Bennett reported, that deportations have fallen. But many point to a 2008 law, the Trafficking and Victims Protection Act, which passed with bipartisan support and was signed by President George W. Bush. The law created certain legal protections for Central American children, who cannot be repatriated without an asylum hearing in immigration court. They are also entitled to legal counsel.
In fiscal year 2013, according to HHS, about 80% of the minors crossing into the U.S. illegally were from three Central American countries – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Only 20% were from Mexico, which lends credence to the view that the 2008 law is a driving force behind the influx of Central American kids.
Minors from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador must be handed over to HHS, which is responsible for placing them with family members, in a foster home or in a government shelter. By contrast, federal policy calls for children from Mexico to be interviewed by Customs and Border Patrol agents within 48 hours, after which they can be repatriated.
Republicans have resorted, as they do, to calls for increased border security. When President Obama requested $3.7 billion last week from Congress to deal with the problem, House Speaker John Boehner’s response was lukewarm, as the president did not also propose deploying the National Guard.
But the flight of Central American children into the United States does not represent a border security problem.
If anything, the numbers demonstrate that it represents a border security success. These children are being apprehended as they cross into (mainly) Texas. Apprehended, as in, caught.
But many Central American minors who are placed with family or friends per the 2008 anti-trafficking law, never come back to court for their asylum hearings. They melt right into the American melting pot.
Juan Osuna, who oversees immigration issues for the Justice Department, told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that “46% of juveniles actually don’t show up for their immigration hearings.”
Incredulous, McCain replied sarcastically, “So only half don’t show up?”
“Not showing up carries considerable consequences,” Osuna replied. “That leads to an order of removal, and that can be enforced after not showing up.”
Why do so many skip court when the consequences can be grave?
Partly it’s the passage of time. Wendy Cervantes of First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization, told me that many children miss court dates because it can take as long as two years to get one. That’s a ridiculous delay.
President Obama’s $3.7-billion request includes about $64 million for more immigration judges and courtrooms. But that, Cervantes said, is not enough to make a dent in the delays.
Despite all the political hysteria, the children and teenagers arriving at our borders are not terrorists. They aren’t spies. They aren’t enemies. They do not represent a security threat to the United States.
Nor are they part of a secret Obama plan to raise pressure on Congress to pass immigration reform. Though come to think of it, that wouldn’t be such a terrible result.
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