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A.B. Stoddard: Obama’s border woes

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Just days ago, a defiant President Obama ended his attempts to work with Congress on immigration reform and declared he would go it alone, using all of the power of the executive office possible to change our broken immigration system. Even as a crisis on the border grew increasingly desperate by the day, Obama seemed confident the public would conclude the mess resulted from Republicans continuing to block reform efforts. 

But Obama’s defiance is gone: He is suddenly back in bunker mode, taunted not only by Republicans but Democrats as well to visit the border, too afraid to be photographed amid the horror. Even worse, the president was shamed into meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to be educated on the matter in his travels to the Lone Star State for some inconveniently scheduled fundraisers.

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Pressured from both sides, Obama is panicking over semantics, at first characterizing the uninterrupted flow of more than 50,000 unaccompanied children into the country as a “humanitarian crisis” but then downgrading it to a “humanitarian situation” as it worsens. When Perry rejected a handshake from Obama at the airport and insisted on an actual meeting, the White House announced the president had invited Perry to talk — not the other way around. Still no visit to the border and still no proposed solutions to the problem.

Earlier this week the president indicated a 2008 law, designed to counter trafficking, needed to be amended so that children from noncontiguous countries like those in Central America could be immediately returned to their home country as migrants from Mexico and Canada are. After signaling the administration would request a change in the law for new “authorities” to expedite deportations — though last week, Obama pledged to reduce them — officials reversed course a day later. Responding to pro-immigrant pressure to preserve the law in order for the children to remain here, the White House then stated that Obama’s policy recommendations would be sent to Congress separately from a massive $3.7 billion request for emergency funding. That’s right, emergency funds for something that is not a crisis.

No money will be approved until the president comes up with a plan, and Republicans want Obama to go first. Most will demand corresponding spending cuts to pay for the billions spent on new border patrols, immigration judges and detention centers, and many will insist the 2008 law be changed. As long as the current flow of immigrants are here legally and cannot be immediately deported under the 2008 law, how will the crisis end? Should Obama resist the tug from the left of his party, change the law and somehow measurably curb the flow of migration, the president might be able to control this narrative once again. If not, it’s hard to see how anything changes, as busloads of immigrants in terrible condition roam around the country to face protesting Americans angry at the prospect of housing them in their communities.

There aren’t many options for Obama to mitigate the threats in the Middle East, as a new battle breaks out between the Israelis and Hamas, and terrorists gain ground in a quest to take over Iraq and Syria. The administration is also under investigation for mistakes and malfeasance at the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs. He can, however, exert some leadership in this foreseen and potentially avoidable calamity by visiting the border, engaging with Central American governments complicit in this crisis, speaking directly with members in both parties in Congress about how to change the law quickly, securing the necessary funding, ignoring interest groups he no longer needs to help reelect him and owning it. Everything he is clearly trying to avoid.

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.