Policy: Law

Why Obama won't take strong action in border crisis

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Politics,Opinion,Byron York,Columnists,Immigration,Barack Obama,National Security,Border Security,Law

Does President Obama want to solve the border crisis? It depends on what the meaning of "solve" is.

The president says a majority of the tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied children flooding across the southwestern border will be returned to their home countries. But his actions suggest that won't really happen.

'In another life, I'd be on the other side of the table.'

Most of Obama's $3.7 billion border crisis spending request will go to the "care, feeding, and transportation costs of unaccompanied children and family groups," according to a statement to Congress by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Even some of the costs that appear to be slated for the removal of illegal border crossers -- money for more lawyers, for example -- will actually go to help the immigrants avoid deportation.

Meanwhile, the one thing Obama could do — push hard to change the law forbidding the quick return of young immigrants from noncontiguous countries — is not on the table. Some hoped the president would include a legislative fix in his spending request. He didn't.

Actions really do speak louder than words. So no matter how tough Obama talks, vowing deportations at some point down the road, there seems little doubt people in Central America contemplating illegal entry into the United States will figure out that the president says one thing, but does another.

Some Republicans have attributed Obama's sluggish and ineffectual handling of the crisis to incompetence. "They're so screwed up over there, I don't think they know what they're thinking," influential GOP Rep. Buck McKeon said when the administration unveiled its spending request.

Perhaps that's the case. Certainly the Obama White House has not seemed firmly in command of much of anything lately. But it's also true the president does not have many pressing political incentives to take strong, decisive action at the border.

Who is pushing Obama to get tough? Mostly, it's the Republicans whose wishes Obama has ignored for years. And now, since his well-publicized decision to abandon hopes of making a deal with GOP lawmakers on immigration, Obama needs them even less. It's to his political benefit to oppose them, not to do their bidding.

On the other side, who is pushing Obama to be lenient? Some very important allies.

First are the Democrats, who don't strongly oppose action on the border but want the president to go forward only if Republicans will agree to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Without a grand bargain, these Democrats are not terribly bothered by Obama's handling of the crisis. While a few border state Democrats like Reps. Henry Cuellar and Ron Barber express reservations about Obama's performance, most won't give the president any trouble.

Next is the liberal commentariat, which supports Obama so strongly in this matter that it is actually pushing back against the idea that the border crisis is a crisis at all. "The besieged border is a myth," the New York Times editorial page declared on Sunday. "Republicans are ... stoking panic about a border under assault."

Finally, there are the immigration activists who don't want Obama to do anything that involves returning the immigrants to their home countries. "We're in the midst of a humanitarian crisis affecting kids fleeing gang violence, extortion and rape," Frank Sharry, of the immigration group America's Voice, said recently. It is Obama's responsibility, Sherry added, to find a way to settle "thousands of child refugees."

Obama recently met with a group of those advocates. One of them later told the Washington Post that the president said to them, "In another life, I'd be on the other side of the table." By that Obama meant that in his old days as a community organizer, pressing for the "refugee" rights would be just the sort of thing he would do.

Now, however, Obama is the man in charge. Maybe his heart is still with the activists across the table. Maybe it's not. But whatever the case, as a Democratic president with Democratic supporters in Congress and liberal supporters in the press and various activist groups, Obama has no incentive to act like Sheriff Joe when it comes to the border crisis. He knows that the more slowly he moves on deportations, the greater the chance that the thousands who have come to the United States will stay.

So chalking up the president's performance to incompetence doesn't tell the whole story. Everybody who really matters to the president, politically and perhaps emotionally, is pushing against strong action at the border. Why would he alienate them, and ignore his own inclinations, to do what Republicans want?

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