President Obama’s first duty as he tries to cope with the crisis of migrant children from Central America is to reject the ugly displays of xenophobia around the country and follow the law as written. That means resisting pressure to engage in mass deportations without giving the children the benefit of due process.
Mr. Obama’s Republican critics have seized on the crisis to make the outlandish claim that his policies have encouraged the onrush of children fleeing their home countries to seek shelter here. They point to Mr. Obama’s executive order two years ago to stop deporting young people who came to this country as children with their parents and remained here even though they never adjusted their immigration status.
There is, in fact, no credible evidence for this claim. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has rightly become known as the “deporter in chief” for removing more undocumented people from this country than any of his predecessors.
During his tenure, the resources, manpower and budget for the Border Patrol have increased incrementally, and still the immigration problem remains unresolved. The current crisis is not so much about lax border controls but about the broken immigration system that Mr. Obama’s adversaries in Congress refuse to fix.
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What brought on this crisis is not a unilateral act by Mr. Obama but rather adherence to the law. A 2008 measure signed by President Bush intended to protect the victims of human trafficking, particularly children, requires young migrants to receive a range of care options — and, as important, access to legal services and individual legal screenings.
According to a report from the McClatchy Washington Bureau, of the 51,000-plus youngsters who were caught entering the country illegally since October, 44,617 already have been discharged from federal custody. About 96 percent of them were released to sponsors in the United States, many of them family members.
If this law needs fixing, Congress and the president must work together to find a solution, but it must target the entire immigration system, not just the current influx of unaccompanied minors. The stopgap proposal Mr. Obama sent to Congress would entail quickie legal hearings that could easily turn into deportation mills instead of providing factual, humane adjudications in every case.
Mr. Obama must ensure that any change in the law avoids arbitrary court rulings and that every child receives full due process. Anything short of that would result in lawsuits by immigration advocates and civil-rights groups.
Congress and the president must also focus on the root of the problem, the lawlessness in Central America that propels mass emigration. Washington has cut spending to support public security in those countries in recent years, all the while spending huge sums for “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why not spend that money closer to home?
The countries of Central America — mainly, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — must do their part by nabbing criminal gangs that charge money for smuggling children out and stamping out criminal violence. Mexico, the transit corridor, also has a duty to stop the trafficking.
It would be an injustice and a stain on this country if the only immigration bill this Congress is capable of producing is one that hurts children. Now that the crisis at the border has riveted the attention of the public, Mr. Obama must seize the moment to focus once more on comprehensive reform of the immigration system.