Why the Border Crisis Could Be Obama’s Katrina

Obama's failed response to an influx of immigrants is a big fumble for his administration.

Editorial cartoon on Obama's immigration policy
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Is the current crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico President Barack Obama’s Katrina? It’s starting to look that way, as the administration’s feeble response to a situation of its own making is destroying whatever was left of its reputation for competence.

Think back to the days when President George W. Bush was riding high in the polls. His administration was successfully prosecuting two wars, beating back the terrorists, presiding over a strong and growing economy with lower unemployment that we have now, more Americans were working, and the Republicans were crushing the Democrats at just about every turn.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, which nearly wiped out New Orleans and large parts of the state of Louisiana (which were then both run by Democrats who couldn’t figure out how to evacuate people in the danger zone, but were expert at pointing fingers and whining). They failed to act decisively in just about any way except to blame Bush.

[SEE: Cartoons on Immigration]

The fact that Republicans in places like Alabama and Mississippi handled the same crisis, with help from the federal government, didn’t matter as much as the chaos in the Superdome, which became the national symbol of the Bush administration’s perceived inability to deal effectively with the worst natural disaster in more than a decade.

Bush’s first mistake, as he later acknowledged in his book "Decision Points," was failing to go to New Orleans to see for himself what was going on. Instead, on the advice of security teams and other supposed professionals, he flew over it – surveying the damage from the air. From a communications standpoint, his failure to touch down sent the wrong signal, conveying the idea that he didn’t care.

This gave rise to statements like the one made during a national charity telethon by Kanye West (and someone please explain him for me) that George Bush “hates” black people. It wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter. The narrative had already been written by the New York Times and taken hold across the country.

[ READ: Time for Legislating, Not Race Baiting]

Now we have Barack Obama, who has dithered for years over the immigration issue like he dithered over other things with the many “present” votes he cast while a member of the Illinois State Senate. His failure to address the border issue – and when you’re president, you’re responsible for these kinds of things – along with his supercharged rhetoric is at least indirectly responsible for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors now trying, in some cases with success, to get over the border.

While he talks about going it alone – and he’s been quick on the swagger and slow on the draw – there’s a list of things, courtesy of Speaker John Boehner’s office, that he could unilaterally do but has not yet done:

[Through the] Department of Homeland Security:

  • Deploy the National Guard to the border for security and humanitarian relief. [...]
  • Ensure asylum claims are valid and standards for "credible fear" claims are strictly enforced.
  • Restrict ability of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to use prosecutorial discretion as related to parole and detention of certain migrants.

Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Require HHS to enter into contracts with organizations that can assist in placement determinations, rather than relying exclusively on the grants process.
  • Require full and formal screening of all volunteers caring for and holding unaccompanied minors.

Department of State:

  • Send clear message to sending countries and intending migrants that immigrants illegally crossing into the US will be deported and promptly returned to their home countries.
  • Require State to enter into negotiations with primary sending countries to expedite the return of family units and [unaccompanied children].
  • Direct State to enter into conversations with Mexico to secure the southern border.

VOTE: Should Obama Visit the U.S. Border]

The president has asked Congress to approve nearly $4 billion in emergency funding to handle the crisis – apparently the U.S. government needs to be in the business of paying lawyers to represent each child who gets into the country rather than sending them back into Mexico – but legislators in both parties are balking.

The president didn’t help matters with his Texas trip either. He had time to glad-hand and raise money for the party, but he didn’t have time to visit the border, which is sort of like flying over New Orleans without bothering to land the plane, get out and walk around. He missed a great photo op – unlike Kanye and Bush, no one will speculate out loud and on national television that Obama just doesn’t like poor brown children, thinks they’re “icky” and won’t be around them – and he hurt himself politically.

Given the way he’s handled most of the crises in his administration – events on the border comprising the latest series of blunders for a White House that does not believe, as a matter of policy, in letting a good crisis go to waste – it’s no surprise his job approval numbers are falling. It’s starting very much to look like Obama’s best day in office was also his first – and it’s all been downhill from there.