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When it comes to immigration policy, President Obama and Congress’s chickens have come home to roost. Both parties’ failure to enact a coherent immigration policy has played a key role in the latest immigration crisis: tens of thousands of children streaming across the border from Central America.
These children are being driven by violence and poverty, and lured by the belief that they will get to stay in the United States. It’s not clear that this belief is false given that 11-plus million unauthorized immigrants live here, most of them for at least a decade. Migrants’ confusion over President Obama’s 2012 executive action allowing some young unauthorized immigrants to receive legal permission to stay and work here appears to have contributed to this belief as well.
None of the available solutions are good at this point. Deporting these children back to their violent, impoverished homelands seems heartless, particularly for those children whose parents are here. Allowing them to enter and stay here will spur even larger inflows. Diverting resources from interior enforcement to the border is unlikely to accomplish much and actually makes life easier for unauthorized immigrants already here. (Although I might argue that’s a good thing given those migrants’ willingness to work hard in jobs most Americans don’t want.) Spending $2 billion more on enforcing the border and detaining these children imposes yet another burden on American taxpayers. And the main effect of tougher border enforcement is to push migrants to even more dangerous crossing points, not to deter them altogether.
Enacting comprehensive immigration reform right now, as President Obama demanded yet again on Monday, won’t solve this crisis. But it will help forestall the next one. Addressing unauthorized immigration requires a multipronged approach. It requires dealing with those already here, either by giving them legal permission to stay, deporting them, or making them miserable enough that they leave. It also requires not encouraging more to enter. This requires not only border enforcement but also interior enforcement, especially at worksites, and a way for low-skilled workers—and their families—to enter legally. This last part is critical. Swaths of the US economy have come to rely on ready access to unauthorized workers. Creating more and better temporary worker visa programs would bolster the rule of law as well.
Policymakers contributed mightily to this problem by failing to adopt comprehensive immigration reform during not only the Obama administration but also the last Bush administration. It’s time the White House and Congress agreed on some sensible reforms. It may not improve the lives of the tens of thousands of Central American children enduring unimaginable hardships to get here, but it will help prevent this from happening again.
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