The Associated Press
Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina, left, and Honduran President Juan Hernandez, right, listen as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media, after they met to discuss Central American immigration and the border crisis in the Cabinet Room of the White House Friday, July 25, 2014, in Washington.
WASHINGTON — Try as he might, President Obama cannot escape responsibility for the debacle at the U.S. Southwest border, caused, in part, by his administration’s mismanagement.
Until Congress returns next month, he should use the tools he has to secure the border and to discourage illegal crossings. One can only hope that he will not take unilateral actions that might make matters worse.
The president has been trying to walk a fine line between accommodating leaders of his domestic Latino base while at the same time dissuading Central Americans from starting the perilous journey north. Although compassionate rhetoric about immigrants is good politics, it is not good policy.
After all, the current crisis has been stoked by loose talk in Washington about a possible “amnesty” of illegal immigrants, stoked by Obama’s 2012 decision to suspend deportation of youths with long-standing ties to the United States, and news that young children arriving at the border were being released pending hearings.
During a visit to Washington last month, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez cited “ambiguities” about U.S. border enforcement that are part of the “pull factor” encouraging people to rush across the U.S. border.
Hernandez also explained the “push factor”: narco-violence that sows insecurity and deadly street gangs preying on youths in his country and neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. Unfortunately, these are poor nations with governments unable or unwilling to deal with these challenges.
Refugee advocates contend that more than half of those arriving in recent months have bona fide claims that require a hearing under U.S. and international law.
That is contradicted by a Border Patrol survey in May that found that nearly all of those interviewed made the trek because of recent rumors of leniency. According to sources in Central America, so-called “coyotes” — criminals who make their living smuggling people — have been advertising lax U.S. border enforcement to drum up business.
Part of the initial problem in responding to the border crisis was the administration’s overly broad application of a 2008 anti-human-trafficking law that requires a complicated hearing on an immigrant’s asylum pleas.
The current crisis is fueled primarily by smuggling, not trafficking. Border personnel should be allowed to use their experience and discretion to screen for legitimate refugee or trafficking cases.
Of course, bona fide refugees in U.S. territory must be attended to lawfully. However, the U.N. should work with local governments to offer relief to refugees in their country of origin, rather than wait for them to run the gauntlet to the U.S. border.
One thing that all can agree upon is that no one is better off risking the thousand-mile trek through Mexico, during which many migrants are abused, robbed, raped or killed.
If the perception of lax enforcement lures people to risk life and limb, that must change immediately. Republicans made these arguments while crafting a tough measure that would strengthen border enforcement, make it easier to deport new arrivals and send an unambiguous signal that the border is being secured.
Although the president initially talked tough on border enforcement, his political advisers apparently recommended that he toss the “hot potato” to congressional Republicans.
However, securing the border is the responsibility of the president, not the Congress. And the president does not need new authority to get a handle on this crisis by sending an unambiguous message that illegal crossings will be stopped, most new arrivals will be turned around, and a sweeping unilateral “amnesty” is off the table.
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Seeking a domestic political “win” by blaming congressional Republicans for inaction on the border is extraordinarily irresponsible — even dangerous.
Not only does it prolong the current crisis, it undermines the kind of bipartisan consensus that will be required to pay the costs of the current crisis and to eventually overhaul an immigration system that is failing the country.
Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (aei.org) and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.