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Obama Turns to Congress to Stem Migrant Children Surge

Obama Turns to Congress to Stem Migrant Children Surge

By Alexis Simendinger - July 8, 2014

“Stem the tide.”

That’s the phrase the Obama administration used Monday to describe why it will ask Congress to help fast-track the expulsion of migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

While President Obama is poised to seek billions of dollars in new appropriations Tuesday, followed by a request for statutory “flexibility” to respond to the border crisis through tough enforcement, immigration reform advocacy groups also expect him to head in another direction. That would be to rebuke Congress altogether by using his executive heft to protect some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. They expect this from the president because that’s what he said a week ago he planned to do.

The administration wants Congress to help the government purge asylum-seekers, including about 52,000 unaccompanied minor children apprehended at the southwestern border, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The administration says a surge in young migrants has been exacerbated by backlogs in processing asylum claims, which can take so long that Central American children crossing the border illegally are encouraged to shelter with family members in the United States -- most of them undocumented -- and never get sent home.

The administration wants swifter handling of unaccompanied minors, which some immigration reform advocacy groups suggest could be achieved with changes to a law signed by President George W. Bush. That bipartisan law was intended to thwart sex trafficking of youngsters and set up a protective framework that slowed their deportation or repatriation to countries where their safety was determined to be in jeopardy.

The administration now blames that law and the backlog that followed in its wake for the surge in children crossing into the United States without adults. Immigrant advocates believe that inviting Congress to embrace statutory fixes before Election Day may prove a risky political strategy that could end up dividing Democrats, erasing hopes for a “comprehensive” reform approach, and widening the enforcement debate Republicans prefer.

Also, turning to Congress for more supplemental appropriations and legal flexibility during the crisis appears to clash with the president’s previous vows to use his executive heft to halt deportations and keep families together.

“It would be very, very sad if the only thing Congress can manage to pass [in 2014] is the removal of unaccompanied minors,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council. “I think it’s a mistake for the administration to assume they can control this legislative process.”

Johnson and his group were among those invited to the White House recently to discuss policy options with Obama, Vice President Biden and senior advisers.

Obama is not expected to outline his immigration enforcement approach to the American people in a comprehensive speech this week. He plans to headline Democratic fundraisers in Denver, Dallas and Austin, but he won’t travel to the Texas border, his spokesman said. The president’s remarks Wednesday and Thursday, according to the White House, will dwell on the economy and spotlight stories shared by individuals who wrote him letters about their families' economic circumstances.

Johnson also told RCP “it’s a horrible mistake” to crack down on the recent surge of asylum-seekers as a way to deter Central American families from trying to better their lives in the United States.  “We can’t respond by trying to process people in a matter of days, to use them as human messengers,” he said.  

Some immigration reform advocates believe the administration may be tempted to sidestep the statutory protections offered to “unaccompanied minors” -- those entering the United States from countries other than Mexico and Canada. (Under agreements with Mexico and Canada, apprehended migrants are easier to send back home.)

Children, including those from Central America, are often sheltered for years by relatives in the United States during prolonged asylum processing, effectively granting them a measure of freedom in America. To correct this trend, the administration wants to add more immigration judges and other professionals at the border to sort out migrants’ claims more rapidly before they leave detention.

This was an approach advocated by former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner in a recent op-ed.  “Upfront hearings would mean that unaccompanied children would no longer be released to family members pending a decision on their eligibility to remain here,” she wrote.

There’s also another possibility in the wind. Some immigration experts fear the administration may alter the definition for and treatment of “unaccompanied” minors once they can be claimed by relatives in the U.S. Under this theory, their profile would change to "accompanied" once they are reconnected with relatives -- and some protections would cease. Since most such relatives in the United States are undocumented and fear deportation, the eventual consequences might be that the tide of children remains high, but fewer relatives living in the shadows in the United States would risk stepping forward to help them.

“We'll always start with the bedrock requirement that we're going to enforce the law as it exists,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “We're also seeking additional authority from Congress that can be given to the secretary of homeland security to exercise some discretion to more promptly remove children [who are] found through the court process [not to] have a legal basis for remaining in this country.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declined Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to say whether unaccompanied minors would more swiftly and frequently be returned to their home countries. Earnest, when pressed to clear up the confusion, said they would. The White House says early asylum hearings could trim the backlog, and adding more immigration detention facilities would keep such children from having to seek shelter with family members.

“Children who have been apprehended will go through the immigration court process,” he told reporters. “And if they are found to not have a legal basis for remaining in this country, they'll be returned.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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