Democrats have argued many of the challenges President Barack Obama has faced since taking office have their roots in the Bush administration. Now, the rising cost of the humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border could be traced back there too.
One of the final bipartisan pieces of legislation passed before President George W. Bush left office was the bipartisan 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The law stipulated children crossing the border from countries other than Mexico and Canada had to be given a chance at refugee status before being sent back home.
The law was meant to protect victims of human trafficking and exploitation. Now, it is a multiplying factor that contributes to the growing price tag of the humanitarian crisis along the border.
“Money is necessary because it truly is an emergency,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sponsored the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. “Capacity is being overwhelmed here, but if you don’t address the root cause of the problem, you really accomplish nothing.”
Immigration has always been a contentious political issue on Capitol Hill. Only this time, Republicans want to see a change in the law, something Obama has said he was open to, while Democrats would prefer only slight changes – if any at all.
Obama has asked Congress to allocate nearly $4 billion to address the surge of unaccompanied minors coming across the southern border. Much of this money, however, wouldn’t go to deportation, but to cover housing and legal costs for the more than 50,000 children who have already come this year.
The rising costs have led Republicans to advocate for quicker deportations of the unaccompanied minors, which would require a change in the law.
“You send them back in a very humane fashion,” says Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “You spend the money. You spend $1,000 per kid.”
Johnson says assuming that border patrol agents have detained more than 50,000 children since October, that would put the price tag around $50 million instead of the $3.7 billion the administration has asked for.
Unlike child immigrants from Mexico who can be deported in a matter of days, children from countries outside of Mexico or Canada have to be transferred to Health and Human Services where they are kept in temporary shelters until they can either be placed with a family member, a sponsor or in foster care. They stay in a guardian’s care until their case can be heard in an immigration court. The backlog in the immigration justice system has created a scenario where many kids wait several years before learning their deportation fate.
Housing the immigrant children and covering the associated legal costs have ballooned into major expenses, so much so that part of the money the White House is requesting includes $1.8 billion to cover the cost of caring for the children in HHS custody.
Republicans say giving the administration that kind of money to perpetuate programs that exist now sends the wrong message.
“He’s got to get a change in the law,” says Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “I think the House and the Senate are ready to appropriate emergency funds to solve the problem, but they want to know they are solving the problem.”
Some Democrats, however, are concerned that changing the law could put children in harm’s way. They argue there was a reason they fought for the protection in the first place. The U.N. estimates nearly 60 percent of children coming across the U.S. border are coming because they need international protection, as a result of abuse, neglect or danger back home.
Simply deporting kids without reviewing their cases, individually, could also set a dangerous precedent.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who fought for the law in 2008, compared turning the kids away in droves to turning the “boatloads of Jewish immigrants” from American shores when they tried to escape Nazi Germany.
“That is not what this country is about,” Feinstein says. “Maybe changing some of the procedures might be worthwhile, but I do believe everything this country is about is protecting children from being raped and being murdered in their country.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who advocated for the so-called Dream Act, warns Republicans not to make Obama’s funding request contingent on changing the law that was passed when Bush was in office.
“I think we better think twice about that,” Durbin says. “Let’s stick to some basic principles. That 2008 bill said we care about children. Whatever we do with these children, we are going to do in a humane, thoughtful way.”