President Barack Obama's abrupt shift from seeking immigration legislation to pursuing a go-it-alone executive strategy raises expectations among immigration advocates that Obama may have trouble satisfying while setting up a clash with House Republicans who've already threatened to sue him.
Limited in his powers to ease deportations and under pressure to crack down on a tide of Central American children entering the U.S. without their parents, Obama has only so many options to tackle an immigration conundrum complicated by a midterm election that could cost him Democratic control of the Senate.
|In the eight months ending on June 15, the U.S. had detained about 52,000 children at the Mexican border, double the figure the year earlier.|
A Central American migrant carrying a small child waits alongside a stuck northbound freight train, outside Reforma de Pineda Mexico. (AP Photo)
The migrants faith that children will be allowed to stay in the U.S. isn't totally misplaced. While Mexicans are usually returned across the border quickly when they're caught, overwhelmed border facilities are unable to care for most Central American children. Minors crossing the border alone are generally released into the care of relatives already in the U.S., while mothers with children are generally let go with a notice to reappear later in immigration court.
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Buffalo's Early News In Studio and In-Depth: The Politics of Immigration
Hear Prof. Bruce Bryski, SUNY Buffalo State
Pres. Trying for "Aboslute Power" on Issue
Obama in Dangerous Political Waters.
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WBEN's Political Contributor Dave Levinthal
from the Center for Public Integrity
Obama on Monday blamed Republican resistance for the demise of sweeping immigration legislation and vowed to bypass Congress to patch up the system. "If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours," Obama said.
But seeking to slow deportations while simultaneously stemming the flow of young people across the U.S. Southern border presents Obama with a knotty set of policy choices.
He has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder for recommendations by the end of summer on the types of executive actions he could take to address some of the aims of a comprehensive bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last year. Among the steps he could consider would be to focus deportations on people with serious criminal records, something the administration has already tried to do, with mixed results.
For now, White House officials say he will refocus resources from the interior of the country to the border.
Many immigrant advocates want far broader changes that would shield millions of immigrants now here illegally from deportation by expanding a two-year-old program that granted work permits to certain immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. It's uncertain how far the president will go to meet those demands.
Dropping by a White House gathering of immigration advocates who were meeting with his senior advisers Monday, Obama promised he would take "aggressive" steps, according to some participants, but cautioned that he could not match on his own what broader legislation would accomplish.
In his public remarks Monday, he conceded the limits of his own authority, noting that unlike an executive action that would last only as long as he is president, legislation would be permanent.
At the same time, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to make it easier to deport recent border crossers, including the unaccompanied youths from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities. Those proposals found little support in the White House meeting, signaling to Obama and his aides the difficulty he could face managing the labor, business, religious and Hispanic coalition behind the push for an immigration overhaul.
"The risk the president runs is that, you know 'absolute power' (corrupts absolutely). And I don't think that plays well with the American people. We have three branches of government for a reason."
"Now he can argue 'look the Republicans are doing nothing', .. but just the public perception that he's doing it on his own, that's a negative perception for many"
-Dr. Bruce Bryski,
SUNY Buffalo State
Republicans, who have blamed Obama policies for attracting youths over the border, argued Obama has overstepped his authority in the past and has been rebuked twice in four days by the Supreme Court.
"He wants a comprehensive immigration overhaul that's his way or the highway," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. "It's disturbing that this president believes he can be a one-man legislative branch when it comes to our immigration laws." House Speaker John Boehner has announced plans to pursue a lawsuit against Obama over his use of executive authority.
Obama's announcement came almost a year to the day after the Senate passed a historic immigration bill that would have spent billions to secure the border and offered a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million people now here illegally. Despite the efforts of an extraordinary coalition of businesses, unions, religious leaders, law enforcement officials and others, the GOP-led House never acted, as the most conservative lawmakers refused to heed calls from GOP leaders to back action to revive the party's standing with Latino voters.
Obama said Boehner, R-Ohio, informed him last week that the House would not be taking up immigration legislation this year. But the speaker blamed the president for the outcome.
"I told the president what I have been telling him for months: The American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written," he said. "Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue."
Boehner called Obama's plan to go it alone "sad and disappointing."
|Border Patrol has lots of agents - in wrong places
The downcast faces on computer screens are 1,500 miles away at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas: a 20-year old Honduran woman arrested rafting across the Rio Grande and a 23-year-old man caught under similar circumstances.
Four agents wearing headsets reel through a list of personal questions, spending up to an hour on each adult and even longer on children. On an average day, hundreds of migrants are questioned on camera by agents in San Diego and other stations on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The long-distance interviews - introduced last year in El Paso, Texas, and extended to California - are a response to the dramatic increase of Central Americans crossing the border in Texas that also has flooded immigration facilities with hundreds of women and children. The Border Patrol does not have the staff to process all the immigrants crossing in the Rio Grande Valley, but faraway colleagues have time to spare.
The remote video processing reveals a perpetual predicament that has long bedeviled the Border Patrol. Many agents wind up stationed in places where crossing activity is slowest because the Border Patrol struggles to keep up with constantly shifting migration patterns.
One example of the staffing mismatch: the roughly 2,500 agents in the San Diego sector arrested 97 immigrants illegally crossing the border on June 14, according to an internal document reviewed by The Associated Press. On the same day, the roughly 3,200 agents in the Rio Grande Valley made 1,422 arrests.
President Barack Obama will ask Congress for more than $2 billion to respond to the flood of immigrants illegally entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley and for new powers to deal with returning unaccompanied children, a White House official said Saturday. A letter will be sent to Congress on Monday, said the official who was not authorized to speak by name and discussed the requests on condition of anonymity. The exact amount and how it will be spent will come after Congress returns from recess on July 7. Whether any funds will go toward border staffing is unknown.
In San Diego, the video processing is a welcome change of pace. Arrests are at 45-year lows and many agents go entire shifts without finding anyone. Cesar Rodriguez, who joined the Border Patrol in 2010, said eight hours fly by since he gave up his assignment watching a stretch of scrub-covered hills east of San Diego and took on a new assignment to process the immigrants via video.
"If there's nothing going on, what are you going to do? You're just staring at the fence," Rodriguez said in his new office, whose parking lot offers sweeping views of hillside homes in Tijuana, Mexico.
A few feet away, Victor Nunez says he interviewed a woman carrying a 4-month-old child and spent his last shift working on a group of 93 people that crossed the Rio Grande at once. Such activity was unheard of on his overnight shift patrolling the quiet mountains near San Diego.
"I feel like we're helping out our agents," said Nunez, who joined the Border Patrol in 2011. "It's a big problem going on there."
The McAllen station is designed to hold a few hundred people, but often teems with more than 1,000 who spill into hallways and outside. Migrants have been sent to stations in quieter parts of Texas, and they were overwhelmed. Overcrowding at the Laredo station prompted a visit from the fire marshal last month.
The shift to the Rio Grande Valley is part of a long-running trend where immigrants and smugglers change crossing locations faster than the government responds.
San Diego was the hot spot until the mid-1990s, when 1,000 agents were added there. After traffic moved to Arizona, staffing in Tucson ballooned under President George W. Bush, who doubled the Border Patrol close to its current size of more than 21,000 agents.
Some warn against bulking up in South Texas because smuggling routes will inevitably change along the 1,954-mile border.
"They don't want to transfer a mass amount of agents and open a gap somewhere else where we have control," said David Aguilar, the Border Patrol chief from 2004 to 2010.
Forced transfers must be negotiated with the National Border Patrol Council, the union which represents agents, and have not happened on a large scale.
The Border Patrol can move agents for 35 days - longer by mutual agreement - but those temporary assignments are expensive. More than 100 agents were sent to Rio Grande Valley this spring for short stays.
Voluntary transfers were an option but have not been used widely in South Texas. The Border Patrol began a campaign about 10 years ago, partly aimed at boosting morale, to offer more transfers if agents moved themselves. And, as agents quit or retire, the vast majority of new hires who replace them are now assigned to Rio Grande Valley.
The Border Patrol introduced video processing in El Paso in April 2013 to address the surge in Rio Grande Valley, where most border crossers are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and many are unaccompanied children. It expanded the processing to El Centro, California, in March, and to San Diego last month.
Between 230 and 500 people have been processed by video each day since it was introduced last year, but lack of detention space in Rio Grande Valley recently prompted authorities to fly migrants to El Paso and Arizona for processing, said Jackie Wasiluk, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's parent agency, Customs and Border Protection. The agency said Friday that it will also fly migrants to California for processing.
Costs are not an issue with video processing. Headsets and cameras are $70 apiece, and it's a small sacrifice to supervisors.
Agents use a long questionnaire that aims to establish identity - where they lived, where they went to school, where they went to church. Most migrants don't have identification, so U.S. authorities must convince consulates to issue passports. Otherwise, they can't be deported.
Throughout their shifts, agents trade instant messages with counterparts in Rio Grande Valley.
"If you have time, can you adjust the camera? It was too high. Ready for another case if you have one," typed Jake Garcia, a San Diego agent for five years.
His counterpart was talking to a group of migrants. Garcia swirled his chair for something rare in his new role: He took a break.