Senate Democrats banded together this week to present an immigration bill designed to help Central American governments deal with the root causes of mass migration to the United States.
The bill, although unlikely to be given serious consideration before the election, could give Democrats political cover this summer if there is another surge of migrants across the border, something that would play into Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE's argument that the nation's border security is woefully inadequate.
Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAfter the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle Photos of the Week: Voting rights, former Sen. Harry Reid and snowy owls Black Democrats hammer Manchin for backing filibuster on voting rights MORE (D-Nev.), the main sponsor of the Secure the Northern Triangle Act, called the situation in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — Central America's "Northern Triangle"— a "humanitarian crisis at our doorstep."
The legislation, sponsored by Reid, Minority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinClyburn says he 'wholeheartedly' endorses Biden's voting rights remarks GOP senator knocks Biden for 'spreading things that are untrue' in voting rights speech Sinema, Manchin curb Biden's agenda MORE (D-Ill.), Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerRomney: I never got a call from White House to discuss voting rights Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Joe Biden's disastrous 48 hours MORE (D-N.Y.) and the ranking members of four powerful Senate committees, reads like a legal roadmap to managing the $750 million appropriation for fiscal 2016 to combat the root causes of Central American migration.
The Hill reported in May that apprehensions of Central American immigrants at the southern border skyrocketed in the first six months of fiscal 2016.
A similar immigrant surge in 2014 caught immigration enforcement agencies off-guard, particularly Customs and Border Protection (CBP). A new migrant crisis in the late summer or fall would provide fodder for Republican efforts to retain the Senate and maintain their House majority, and potentially help Trump's presidential aspirations, particularly in Arizona, a red state with a large Hispanic electorate that Democrats have targeted as a potential swing state.
Democrats took a political hit from 2014 surge, taking flak from the left and right.
Republicans panned the Obama administration's border enforcement as weak. Hispanic organizations, meanwhile, criticized CBP's treatment of immigrants as inhumane and slammed government's inability to process unaccompanied children and provide adequate legal representation to recent arrivals claiming refugee status.
The Democratic bill, aside from including many demands of regional activists and experts, addresses many of the criticisms that have dogged the Obama administration's immigration enforcement and humanitarian policies.
Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Reid's bill is a move in the right direction.
The legislation "attempts to present a short, medium and long-term strategy to attend the violence and humanitarian crisis that have led many families and unaccompanied children to flee Central America," Beltrán said.
Its main provision would condition aid to the Northern Triangle on specific countries' efforts to combat endemic corruption and criminality, which are considered the root causes of mass emigration.
The measure also calls on regional actors, including Mexico and Costa Rica, to upgrade their refugee programs to take on a larger share of migrants.
Republicans have chided Obama for his executive actions on immigration, two of which were blocked by the Supreme Court last month. They say Obama’s move toward deportation relief promoted the idea in Central America that undocumented immigrants would only need to cross the border to be protected.
The Democratic bill calls for a "public information campaign to warn potential migrants from the Northern Triangle about the dangers of the journey through Mexico to the United States, and the reality of U.S. immigration law and policy."
Like many other provisions in the legislation, it mirrors strategies put in place by the federal government in reaction to 2014's surge.
Returning from a trip to supervise repatriation flights in El Salvador and Honduras in May, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned about the dangers of the trek through Central America and Mexico, and vowed that U.S. border security will be enforced.
"Our borders are not open to illegal or ‘irregular’ migration. If you have been apprehended at our border, have a final order of removal, and have no pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws, we must send you home," Johnson said.
The legislation would also strengthen criminal penalties for human smugglers, drug traffickers and money launderers, as well as criminalizing the surveillance of Border Patrol activities with the intent of profiting from the violation of immigration laws.
In 2014, images of dozens of unaccompanied minors in run-down provisional CBP shelters showed the government's lack of preparation. While expanded infrastructure and programs put in place since all but guarantee those images will not be repeated, strict immigration enforcement has created friction between the administration, Democrats, and Hispanic voters, a key constituency in the 2016 election.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform group, wrote Wednesday that, "unfortunately, the Obama Administration views this situation through the lens of immigration control and as a result, focuses on deterrence, detention and deportation."
Eager to show a softer side of immigration enforcement to Hispanics, Democrats included language in the bill guaranteeing legal assistance to unaccompanied children, as well as providing the Department of Health and Human Services with statutory regulation to care for minors once they are processed by the CBP.
Reid said the region's emigrants "risk their lives to seek asylum in the United States." He decried the current U.S. policy of "deterrence and enforcement," saying "we can and should do more to address the violence and instability in the region."
Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist working for several down ballot campaigns in Hispanic districts, said the bill will help him because, to "educate Latinos on the differences between the parties on the issues, it’s good to have red meat to show them."
Democrats are counting on massive Latino voter turnout in November, banking on Trump's aggressive rhetoric to ignite the constituency. Eligible Hispanic voters have traditionally been reluctant to head to the polls, but they could prove decisive in critical swing states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
Rocha said the bill's focus on children's welfare is the right approach.
"How we accept and treat immigrants is a reflection of who we are as a country and Latinos know that more than anyone," Rocha said.