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Child immigrant crisis: Is it 'emergency' enough for Congress to act?

Francine KieferThe Christian Science Monitor

Will the child immigrant crisis on the border turn into the Obama administration’s version of superstorm Sandy – a regional emergency that becomes caught in the throes of gridlock?

As with the White House request for relief assistance after the 2012 storm that devastated the Northeast, some Republicans in Congress object to the $3.7 billion in emergency funds that President Obama has requested to address this man-made disaster.

It took lawmakers three months after Sandy devastated the Northeast to approve assistance, and it may well take months this time, although House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio reportedly told Republicans Wednesday that he wants the emergency funding dealt with before Congress breaks for summer recess in August.

“There was a time when a crisis of this sort was enough to galvanize congressional support for action, often bipartisan,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. He points to federal relief after major hurricanes and even the financial bailout during the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.

“But now those crises are not enough,” Mr. Zelizer adds. “The same kind of political gridlock which has become normalized throughout [this] session is also at play, blocking politicians from addressing these situations.”

The wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the US border – more than 50,000 so far this year – may not be a natural disaster but it is, in some ways, being treated like one.

Mr. Obama has appointed the agency that normally responds to hurricanes and fires – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – to coordinate the cross-government effort to handle the influx of children, most of them coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

A Texas Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, is urging the president to change his mind and visit the border during his fundraising trip to the state this week – or risk a “Katrina moment.” That’s a reference to President George W. Bush’s failure to quickly visit the Gulf Coast disaster sites and his perceived initial neglect of the fallout from hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Given the urgent humanitarian crisis along the southern border, the White House is calling for a swift, bipartisan response to the president’s request for emergency funding. It says the money will improve the living conditions of the children, speed up the judicial process to decide their cases, beef up border surveillance and security, and assist countries in taking back those who are deported.

"The problem here is not a major disagreement around the actions that may be helpful in dealing with the problem," the president said in a briefing with reporters after a meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and faith groups in Dallas on Wednesday. "The problem is: Is Congress prepared to act to put the resources in places to get this done?"

Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri worry that the issue will "get caught up" in partisan politics. "There are days it feels like Barack Obama gets blamed for the sun coming up in the morning," she said.

But others see more substantive policy issues here and suggest that the crisis on the border is not a storm that comes and goes but is a chronic problem that has ebbed and flowed for decades. Moreover, both parties have longstanding views on the issue not likely to shift in a moment.

 Just as some Republicans objected to the administration’s request for $60 billion in relief money for Sandy, some Republicans this time want a “pay-for” to offset the addition to the deficit. (Budget experts say it’s rare for Congress to insist on fully offsetting emergency spending, and Republicans did not succeed in an offset for Sandy, except for a comparatively small amount: $3.4 billion.)

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas is taking an especially hard line. “Congress shouldn't give President Obama a single penny until we see him use the current resources to secure the border, increase interior enforcement, and reduce illegal immigration," he said in a statement Tuesday.

He’s not alone in this sentiment.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin asked at a Senate hearing on the border on Wednesday whether it wouldn’t be more cost effective to simply fly the children back to their home countries, put them up in hotels, and pay for their meals. He put the price at about $1,000 per child. Sending “planeload after planeload” of kids back home was the most meaningful deterrent the administration could possibly carry out, he said.

Others want reforms to accompany the dollars. “If they’ll do policy changes that address the underlying problem, I will do the money,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told reporters.

He was referring specifically to proposed changes to a 2008 law that the administration did not include in its funding request – changes that would treat the cases of immigrant children from Central America as expeditiously as those from Mexico.

As the law stands now, unaccompanied minors from countries that do not border the United States must be housed and cared for while their cases are adjudicated. But the shortage of judges has caused a huge backlog in cases, and when their court date finally does arrive, many children don’t show, likely staying on without legal status in the US.

There is widespread support among Republicans to change the law: Senator Graham said it is a prerequisite for the funding; others, such as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, agree.

The White House still intends to seek these changes, though it hasn’t said when. But some Democrats strenuously object, saying changes would harm the rights of children, allowing them to be sent back to dangerous conditions in their countries.

To give a sense of just how loaded the child immigrant issue has become on the Democratic side, the ACLU and immigrant advocacy groups on Wednesday sued the administration for denying immigrant children their rights by allowing them to face deportation proceedings without legal representation.

When Congress eventually did pass relief for Sandy last year, it included a “reform” of sorts – billions of dollars for improvements in infrastructure to prevent damage from future storms.

Given the coming election and the intense polarization over immigration reform, it may be much harder for lawmakers this time to agree on any preventive measures for the long term.