Right issue, wrong response on children at the border

First, do no harm. Lawmakers preparing to exit Washington for the five-week summer recess would do well to keep The Hippocratic Oath in mind as they grope for a last-minute legislative solution to the crisis of migrant children crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.

Members of Congress want constituents to know that they’re actually doing something to reduce the influx of children coming across the border. That’s commendable. The issue deserves Congress’ immediate attention. But approving bills in haste just to look good with voters as the campaign season heats up is not the best way to legislate.

In this case, some recommendations coming from Capitol Hill are motivated more by the desire to please the harshest, no-amnesty voices within the party than by a need to enact effective laws based on good public policy.

The proposal presented by Republican House leaders is too simplistic, focused exclusively on keeping children out without regard for their legal rights or for the notion of living up to America’s tradition of providing shelter for innocents fleeing violence.

The proposed bill would change the law in order to deny young migrants the protections they already have by amending the 2008 anti-trafficking law that gives children from Central America the right to stay in the United States long enough to have their day in court. Under the proposed change, Border Patrol agents could decide to send them back right away, in the same way that the law prescribes for children from Mexico and Canada.

The current situation on the border is unacceptable. It encourages children to make a hazardous trek from Central America to the U.S. border, crossing Mexico with no guarantee of being able to stay in this country. It taxes the resources of the Border Patrol and the entire immigration system. It distracts border agents from the job of stopping real criminals and dope smugglers.

But replacing the orderly system of determining which children might actually have a legal right to remain in this country under current law with a hastily erected process of quickie justice, or allowing border agents to make on-the-spot decisions, is not the answer.

Nor is it right to change the law to eliminate rights bestowed in the bill passed by Congress in 2008 — and signed by President Bush — in an effort to deter child sex trafficking and other crimes that victimize young people.

The Republican proposal would also deploy National Guard troops to the border to assist in the care of unaccompanied children coming across. That’s no solution, either. Sending soldiers to the border is not going to fix the problem because the children are not seeking to evade border guards — they’re trying to find them so they can get food and shelter.

A fair and effective way to determine which children have a right to stay in the United States is indispensable to preserve the safety of children who enter the United States. That system is already in place, although the Obama administration has asked for more money to meet the latest influx.

The one action Congress should take before the August recess is to provide the funds without strings attached because border-control agencies are rapidly running out of money to care for the children. But tying the funding to changes in the law that curtail the rights of the young migrants is short-sighted, unfair and unlikely to resolve anything. Better to make no immediate changes in the law than to make matters worse.