WASHINGTON — There’s no objective need for President Obama to visit the Texas-Mexico border and see the immigration crisis first-hand, but he shouldn’t have claimed that “I’m not interested in photo ops.”
The line about photo ops was so absurd that it’s a good thing he wasn’t under oath. Every president since Abraham Lincoln has been interested in photo ops. Posing for the cameras amid artfully chosen people and props is something presidents do every day. Obama is very good at it, and there are times when he actually gives the impression that he enjoys it.
Not all photo ops are created equal, though. It’s easy to understand why Obama might dig in his heels over a trip to the border that would do nothing but give a false impression. Pictures of the president among a group of Central American children — some of the tens of thousands who have entered the country without papers in recent months — would suggest that our dysfunctional government is serious about addressing what has become a humanitarian crisis. Sadly, this is not true.
Reckless loudmouths such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who blast Obama for “lawlessness” on immigration, are pretending not to understand that the flood of unaccompanied children is primarily caused by Obama’s adherence to the law.
In 2008, George W. Bush signed legislation — passed by Congress, of course — that gives special consideration to unaccompanied minors from countries other than Canada and Mexico. Children covered by the law cannot be sent home before completion of a lengthy process to determine whether there is any reason they should be allowed to stay. This can take as long as two years. In the interim, they often stay with family members already in the country.
The intent of the law was to combat human trafficking. The result was pretty much the opposite: Traffickers recognized a growth opportunity. They could guarantee parents in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that their children, once smuggled into the United States, would not immediately be sent home; instead, they would be released to the care of relatives. If the children happened not to show up for their scheduled status hearings, it was almost certain that no one would come looking for them.
Cruz is an intelligent man and surely grasps this. But he and other Republican critics pretend the influx of children — about 50,000 so far this year — is somehow due to Obama’s decision to suspend deportation of undocumented immigrants brought here as children before 2007.
None of the children entering the country now would qualify for the effective amnesty that Obama has given to the “dreamers.” They do qualify, however, for the effective amnesty given by Congress and a Republican president.
If Congress wants to stem the flow, it should begin work immediately on changing that 2008 law. In an election year, however, Republicans apparently believe it is more profitable to bash Obama as “soft” on illegal immigration — and pretend not to understand what’s really going on. Democrats, meanwhile, are content to use the issue as a way of pointing out GOP hostility toward Latino voters.
Still, the crisis mounts. Children’s lives are being put at risk during dangerous border crossings. Facilities for processing and housing the children are overwhelmed. Several communities along the border are up in arms. The swelling numbers mean that it could take even longer to schedule the required hearings in the deportation process.
Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the situation. The Senate will vote on the request soon, Majority Leader Harry Reid said this week. The response from House Republicans has been a lot of hemming, hawing, moaning and groaning about being asked to give the president a “blank check.”
But Obama has spelled out exactly how the money would be used — to properly care for the children, beef up the Border Patrol and add more immigration judges, among other things. The question is whether Republicans would rather have the crisis simmer until Election Day and use it to animate the party’s far-right base, which loves to get all riled up about immigration.
What should the president and Congress do?
The answer could not be more obvious: comprehensive immigration reform. The system is broken. We need to fix it. Now.
We won’t, though. Both Republicans and Democrats see political advantage in the status quo. Why do the people’s business when we can all argue about the president’s travel schedule instead?
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.