(CNN) — It’s time to get beyond the question of who’s to blame for the crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, where tens of thousands of children — three-fourths of them from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador — are streaming into the United States and overwhelming our border enforcement apparatus.
We have to focus on workable solutions and skip half-baked ideas that make the problem worse.
Unfortunately, neither President Obama nor congressional Republicans are bringing their A-game.
You know who did bring theirs? The human smuggling cartels.
The White House recently acknowledged that “criminal syndicates” planted fake media reports on foreign television networks telling desperate would-be migrants that Congress had passed an amnesty and urging people to go north immediately for their “permisos” (permits) to live legally in the United States. Helping what is now nearly 100,000 young people cross the U.S.-Mexico border, at $8,000 per head, the bad guys earned about $800 million. It was a brilliant plan, and an evil one.
How are our leaders responding? The results are not impressive.
Republicans insist that Obama is to blame for the surge because of an accommodation he offered young undocumented immigrants in 2012.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, is demanding that Obama end the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which lets young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children avoid deportation and apply for a work permit, and which Issa claims — with no evidence to back it up — is responsible for the flood of children across the border.
Never mind that none of the children now crossing into the country is eligible for DACA, because anyone who enters the country after June 15, 2007, does not qualify for the program. Never mind that, if DACA were to blame for the influx, it would have happened two years ago.
Never mind that the real reason so many of these kids have been turned over to family members in the United States while awaiting a court date isn’t DACA. It’s because of a longstanding but unspoken policy by the Border Patrol to treat unaccompanied minors differently from adults — and a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush that prohibits Border Patrol agents from sending them back across the border. It instead requires that they be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services until they can be placed in the custody of a relative.
Meanwhile, Obama is being just as thickheaded — and hardhearted. He will soon ask Congress to provide more than $2 billion in new funding to bolster enforcement on the border.
By all means, because the tens of billions that we spend on securing the homeland — including the $38.2 billion that Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson requested from Congress in the fiscal year 2015 budget request — have been so effective in tightening the border.
Obama also wants additional powers for the executive branch so that immigration officials can speed up the removal of young unaccompanied minors without the nuisance of having to administer due process, including access to legal counsel.
And to think that Obama was once a university lecturer on constitutional law. He needs a refresher course.
This is how Obama deals with what he has called a “humanitarian crisis”? What is humane about taking children who have already been through so much pain and suffering — some of whom were, according to reports, sexually assaulted and threatened by street gangs in Central America — and express shipping them back to those hellholes?
Here are five things the President should do:
— As House Speaker John Boehner suggested a few weeks ago, Obama should send in the National Guard to help the Border Patrol, which is overwhelmed, outnumbered, and occupied as a babysitter. In 2006, Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, in a supporting role, to help Border Patrol agents by repairing fence line and fixing vehicles and thus allowing the agents to patrol the border.
— Obama needs to suspend the Border Patrol’s policy of allowing unaccompanied minors to stay in the United States with relatives. Young people need to be held by U.S. immigration officials until they can be brought before an immigration judge to determine if they should be deported or whether they have a legitimate claim to refugee status. Since current law says that unaccompanied minors have to be placed with relatives within 72 hours, we have to make sure that they get before a judge within that time period. It’s not ideal. But changes have to be made, since the current system has been compromised by smugglers who are using it to line their pockets.
— Children in the custody of U.S. immigration officials, some of whom are as young as 5, must be treated compassionately. They have to be placed in decent, temperature-controlled holding rooms with sanitary conditions and adequate toilet facilities, and given sufficient food and prescribed medicine. They’re not prisoners. They’re guests of this country, until an immigration judge says otherwise.
— Asylum hearings need to be expedited for children from Central America to determine if they qualify for refugee status. Lawyers must be provided. The government can have hearings for groups of immigrants at one time, in order to speed things up. We simply cannot deport any young person who faces a legitimate threat of violence back home. It could be a death sentence.
— Some of these kids are going to have to be deported back to their home countries, in the most public and conspicuous manner possible, so that other people who are thinking about coming here reconsider. The administration has been smart in placing public service announcements in foreign media, telling people they’ve been lied to and that there are no “permisos.” This is a battle of competing messages, and we have to win.
This crisis was years in the making. Cleaning it up will take time and effort. What are we waiting for? Let’s get started.
Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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