The thousands of undocumented children from Central America crossing the border into the United States have received no lack of media attention. But don’t count on the politicians responsible for the problem fixing it.
That won’t happen, not only because of the usual partisan politics, which is Washington’s favorite sport. It is because neither side of the argument sees any political advantage to being honest about the problem or about coming up with real ways to deal with it.
The administration for its part has asked Congress for an additional $3.7 billion to expedite processing these kids, supposedly so they can be shipped home quicker. Since there are an estimated 57,000 of them, that comes to nearly $65,000 per child. It would be cheaper to give them a scholarship for college.
Congress will no doubt find that too high a price to pay and will fail to act effectively. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, if they approve anything at all, will attach enough conditions on the legislation to make it unacceptable to the Democratic majority in the Senate. And the blame game will continue as both sides use the issue to motivate their base.
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The inaction will be used by Democrats to paint the Republicans as xenophobic, if not downright racist. Mitt Romney got only 27 percent of the Latino vote in the last election, and it will take more than putting Sen. Marco Rubio on the ticket for the next Republican presidential candidate to do much better. Republicans will portray it as yet another danger to national security to which the White House is not responding adequately. Sen. John McCain is no doubt searching for a camera to stand in front of to denounce this latest existential threat to the country.
So the politics of hope and change will square off again against the politics of fear and hate. Those who support the former have delivered a lot more hope than change in large part because the supporters of the latter have been too busy using scare tactics to bother with practical solutions to anything.
If there were any political will to deal with the problem, the Washington politicians could start with the following steps.
• First, the Senate could begin by approving the more than 50 nominees to be ambassadors to countries around the world. On Tuesday, lawmakers finally approved career diplomat James Nealon as ambassador to Honduras, but the same post in Guatemala remains vacant for lack of Senate action. These are two of the countries most responsible for the influx of children. Some of those nominated have been waiting for over year for the Senate to act, and the vast majority of them are noncontroversial appointments of career officers. Having inadequate diplomatic representation in so many countries is a threat to national security.
• Second, it is time to have a serious conversation about legalizing drugs instead of just letting it happen state by state. The vast majority of the kids are coming here because they are fleeing gang violence in their own countries. That violence stems largely from the narcotics trafficking that is responding to American demand for drugs. There is no more chance of there being a final victory in the war on drugs than there will be in the war on terrorism. So why not admit that, like prohibition, criminalization doesn’t work and drug use should be made legal and taxed.
When demonstrators in California recently turned around busloads of the kids being brought to a processing center, one woman was holding a sign that said “Not Our Children, Not Our Problem.” These children are the collateral damage of the drug war and they are our problem.
• Third, instead of spending billions on returning them to the crime-ridden environment that prompted their journey in the first place, how about spending some money helping the countries in Central America improve their police forces and judicial systems. Just spending money to send them back faster gives them the option of either trying to enter illegally again or waiting around until they are victims of that violence. And they have already made clear which choice they would take.
But whether it is these steps or others, don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to solve the problem rather than taking political advantage of it.
Dennis Jett was ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and is now a professor of international affairs at Penn State.