Immigration is one of the most divisive, pressing issues in contemporary politics. Immigration reform has loomed over congress for nearly 20 years, but since 9/11, border policy has become a matter of ‘homeland security,’ the demands of which supersede most economic and humanitarian concerns.
While policy hangs behind, the world moves on. Recent years have seen a drastic spike in arrivals of both families and unaccompanied minors from South America. Despite the fact that illegal immigration levels have been at a 40 year low since 2009, border services lack adequate facilities to house and care for at-risk children while they are being processed, resulting in overcrowding and appalling conditions at detention centers.
The White House claims that the rise in arrivals of unaccompanied minors is ‘over’ thanks to diplomatic efforts, but republicans contend that the White House has failed to address the legal loophole responsible for the immigration spike, and further complain that our borders are undefended.
The loophole in question is the Wilberforce Act, legislation aimed at protecting children who may be victims of sexual exploitation. Signed into law a month before president Obama took office, the Wilberforce Act includes special consideration for all minors from countries ‘not contiguous to the United States’, meaning any country that isn’t Canada or Mexico. This allows children to be released to relatives in the U.S. while they are being considered for asylum.
Once in the U.S., migrant children can qualify for a ‘deferral of action’ under the president’s 2012 DACA order. While not providing citizenship or residency, this deferral allows anyone who arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday to remain in the country legally.
Republicans want to repeal DACA, deploy the national guard to the border, and end the Wilberforce Loophole, expediting procedures for processing unaccompanied minors. But these propositions come at the risk of sending children back to countries where they may face eminent danger. It was recently reported that between five and ten children deported to Honduras have been killed since February, one of whom was shot within hours of returning to the country.
Meanwhile, the Democrats answer has come in the form of legislation carrying up to a $4.5 billion price tag, more than enough to rally the right with cries of irresponsible spending. The democrat’s bill provides $3.7 billion to the Department of homeland security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the department of justice, to fund apprehension and migrant holding efforts. But this legislation also includes modifications to the Wilburforce bill which could threaten the safety of migrant children. While the bill has had trouble overcoming republican opposition in congress, the president has threatened to sign the bill into law as an executive action bypassing the legislative process. This has led prominent republicans, notably Alabama’s Jeff Sessions to comment that America is not an oligarchy [in which] the masters of the universe meet at the White House and decide how to run this country.
The one issue that no legislator can successfully bring to the floor of congress is comprehensive immigration reform: Reassessing the way the government looks at people who attempt to get in to America both legally and illegally, in light of our economy’s massive demand for migrant labor, and the innumerable benefits of easing the immigration process, notably tourism and tax revenues. But with both parties so strongly divided, it seems unlikely that any major reforms will become law, at least until the final few month’s of President Obama’s final term in office.