WASHINGTON — The Republican Party’s paralysis on immigration is so complete — and so utterly irresponsible — that President Obama has no choice but to act on his own.
Just say the word immigration and most GOP members of Congress either change the subject or scurry away. Rather than tackle a suite of genuine issues whose obvious solutions would clearly benefit the nation, House Republicans prefer to pass yet more useless bills that seek — and fail — to take away people’s health insurance.
Both parties agree that the rapid influx of more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Central America is a crisis. Yet House Speaker John Boehner must struggle to convince his GOP majority to do something, anything, before leaving Washington for their annual month-long summer vacation.
Obama asked Congress for an emergency $3.7 billion appropriation, much of which would be spent to house and care for the children while their requests for asylum are evaluated. Senate Democrats are set to propose approving roughly $2.7 billion, shaving the president’s request to the sum needed for this calendar year. There is no guarantee, however, that the bill won’t be stymied by a GOP filibuster.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have been spinning their wheels. Boehner is reportedly seeking agreement on a bill that provides only about $1 billion in emergency funding, far less than Obama says is needed. And it seems likely that the House bill — if there is one — will seek to change a 2008 law that prevents the Central American children from being summarily deported.
A little background about that law is in order. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — named after a 19th-century English abolitionist — was signed by George W. Bush late in his presidency. Designed to combat human trafficking, the law provides that any child from a country other than Canada or Mexico who enters the United States illegally must be given a full immigration hearing before being deported. The goal is to determine whether the child has a valid claim for asylum.
Most of the children in the current wave are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — countries plagued by violent street gangs that often force young boys to join their ranks and force young girls into prostitution. According to the United Nations, Honduras has by far the highest murder rate in the world. Guatemala and El Salvador are also in the top five.
Obama has not ruled out changing the law in some manner. Most Democrats, however, believe the thing to do is provide the resources needed to speed the required immigration hearings. That way, those who do not merit asylum — or qualify to stay on other grounds — could be more quickly sent home.
By insisting that the law be changed, Republicans are acknowledging that what they said at first about the border crisis was a bunch of partisan hot air.
The initial GOP line was that the whole border crisis is Obama’s fault because of his administrative decision to allow many undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to stay. Republicans knew that none of the children now arriving would qualify for this leniency — it applies only to those who arrived before June 2007 — but essentially argued that Central Americans were too dumb to figure this out.
Now, at least, the party acknowledges that the door was opened by a measure that sailed through both houses of Congress before being signed into law by a Republican president. Does this mean that Republicans are ready to adopt a more reality-based approach to immigration in general? Fat chance.
There are at least 11 million men, women and children living in this country without papers. You see them every day — working, going to school, attending church. Many of them have been here for years. They are part of the fabric of our society, and there are communities — and whole industries — that could not function without them.
A reasonable program of immigration reform would recognize these basic facts. Instead, Republican Party dogma continues to insist on the fantasy that all these people are somehow going to be rounded up and deported.
Any other outcome, as far as the GOP’s activist base is concerned, would be “amnesty,” which is a word not to be uttered in polite company. Republicans love to forget that Ronald Reagan was responsible for the last big amnesty to undocumented immigrants, back in 1986.
Obama must follow the Gipper’s sterling example. The GOP needs to get on board or get out of the way.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.