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Crisis centered on children affects tone of immigration debate on Capitol Hill

July 9, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
The immigration debate flared back to life on Capitol Hill a day after President Obama requested $3.7 billion to cope with the flood of children at the southern U.S. border. For a closer look at the politics and rhetoric driving the debate, Gwen Ifill turns to Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico and Todd Zwillich of The Takeaway.
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GWEN IFILL: One day after President Obama requested almost 40 — $4 billion from Congress to cope with the influx of children at the southern U.S. border, the debate over what to do next moved to Capitol Hill.

With Congress back at work, the politics of immigration dominated the day, starting at a Senate hearing.

Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson:

SEN. RON JOHNSON, R, Wis.: We have got to come to a decision in this country whether we’re going to have totally open borders or whether we’re going to have a legal immigration system, which I want to fix this.

GWEN IFILL: The smoldering immigration issue has flared back to life with fresh debate over the rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border to Mexico.

Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, conceded today the surge has outstripped efforts to stop it.

CRAIG FUGATE, Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency: The children continue to come across the border. It’s a very fluid situation. And although we have made progress, that progress is oftentimes disrupted when we see sudden influxes of kids coming in faster than we can discharge them, and we back up.

GWEN IFILL: Since October, 57,000 juveniles have been detained, more than double the number from the same period last year.

Thomas Winkowski of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told senators the agency is trying to change the perception that once migrants arrive, they will be allowed to remain.

THOMAS S. WINKOWSKI, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: We’re already seeing people saying, I didn’t realize I was going to detention. I thought I was going to be released. That begins that process of sending the deterrent message. If we’re going to be successful that, in my view, that’s what we have to do.

GWEN IFILL: But Republican John McCain of Arizona said the actual numbers speak louder than the administration’s words.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: In fiscal year 2013, 20,805 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were apprehended by the Border Patrol.

In that same year, 2013, 1,669 of these unaccompanied children were repatriated to their home countries. If you were one of these children and you were there in one of these countries, wouldn’t you think your odds are pretty good?

THOMAS S. WINKOWSKI: Yes, but there is a legal process. And that process takes time to make its way through the system.

GWEN IFILL: The Justice Department used the hearing to announce it’s moving cases involving children to the top of immigration court dockets.

Juan Osuna runs the department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review.

JUAN OSUNA, Director, Executive office of Immigration Review: These cases will go to the front of the line for adjudication and immigration judges will be assigned to make sure that these cases are heard promptly and ahead of all others.

This change has consequences for the broader immigration court caseload. Cases not considered a priority will take longer to adjudicate. However, given these seriousness of the situation along the border, it is the proper response by our agency.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis. The money would go to detention, caregiving, and court facilities, but Republicans sounded doubtful.

House Speaker John Boehner said the request doesn’t address the main issue:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: If we don’t secure the border, nothing’s going to change. And if you look at the president’s request, it’s all more about continuing to deal with the problem. We have got to do something about sealing the border and ending this problem, so that we can begin to move on with the bigger question of immigration reform.

GWEN IFILL: The president traveled from Denver to Dallas today for a long-planned fund-raising trip now overshadowed by the immigration furor.

Republicans, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said the president should go to the border as well.

SEN. TED CRUZ, R, Texas: President Obama today is down in the state of Texas. But, sadly, he’s not visiting the border. He’s not visiting the children who are suffering as a result of the failures of the Obama policies. Instead, he’s doing fund-raisers. He’s visiting Democratic fat cats to collect checks, and apparently there’s no time to look at the disaster, at the devastation that’s being caused by his policies.

GWEN IFILL: The White House dismissed the criticism.

Instead, the president was meeting with Texas Governor Rick Perry, as well as local officials and faith groups that work with detained children.

As the border crisis heats up, we turn to two reporters who’ve been covering the politics driving the debate at the White House and on Capitol Hill, Carrie Budoff Brown, senior White House reporter for Politico, and Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for The Takeaway on Public Radio International.

Carrie, you have been writing quite a bit about what’s been happening, I call it inside the Roosevelt Room at the White House, as the administration tries to find its balance on this, criticized by Democrats who don’t think the president is doing enough, criticized by Republicans who don’t think the president is doing enough, for different reasons.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN, Politico: Yes.

There’s two separate tracks right now on immigration that are pretty key to White House, what’s happening on the border, this crisis with the influx of young people from Central America. And there is this bigger process going on, that because Congress didn’t pass an immigration reform bill, there is an effort under way by the president to act on his own to provide temporary legal status to millions of people, potentially.

And there’s high hopes in the immigrant advocacy community, the Democratic base, lawmakers — Democratic lawmakers on the Hill, Hispanic and Asian lawmakers, who really want him through the stroke of his own pen to provide a legal status to potentially as many as 10 million people, 10 million undocumented immigrants.

There’s a lot of pressure on him to do that. And this crisis on the southwest border clouds that whole process. And how he responds to this and how he manages this process will have an effect on public opinion potentially and his ability to make these bigger decisions that he’s hoping do in the next two months.

GWEN IFILL: At least one of his supporters, advocates on behalf of his point of view, have called him the deporter in chief, something he didn’t take very well.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And today he was talking — or yesterday — about right-sizing expectations. What does that mean?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: That means that he has a very difficult relationship right now with a lot of Hispanic advocates, Asian advocates, who have been pushing for him to put all of his might possible behind the immigration reform bill.

At the same time, he has deported almost as many people as George W. Bush did. They are now — now that he’s decided to take some action on his own, they really want him to go to the mat, to go to the legal limit possible. And there’s high expectations that he will do that.

And he is telling them, listen, there is a legal limit to what can I do. Do not raise hopes so high that I can’t reach it. And that has ramifications on how the community views us and Democrats in general, and potentially puts some of our toughest races in peril this year and down the road.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go to the other end of Capitol — of Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, Todd.

And $3.7 billion the president asked for to address this most recent very narrow problem of — not so narrow — of children crossing the border. How has that been received? 

TODD ZWILLICH, The Takeaway, Public Radio International & WNYC: Well, push and pull is really what today was about, as you saw the rhetoric from both sides about how they are going to deal with this.

I will say there is a hope on both sides of the aisle to do something about this, because this is about the children. You don’t cross the troops and vets, and you do it for the children in Washington. And…

GWEN IFILL: So, there is a difference, a point of view or a different tone to the debate because of the children?

TODD ZWILLICH: There is. And here is why I say push and pull.

To Democrats on the Hill, this entire problem and the policy that they want out of this is about push from Central America. They say this is a refugee problem. This is children fleeing Honduras and Guatemala with enormously high murder rates, with assaults, with drug trafficking, with the highest murder rate in the world.

They are fleeing a terrible situation. We cannot — we cannot as a compassionate country just have a policy that sends them back into this fire. For Republicans, it is all about pull. This is all about, they say, an American policy and an American president that advertises to the parents of these children that if they turn up on the border, they will be welcomed, they will granted asylum, they can stay, they will get amnesty.

Now, the White House of course points out that’s not the law and border protection and judges and lawyers have to now point out that that’s not the law, and that’s why there’s so many thousands in many cases in detention, because they don’t get automatic amnesty. That’s not the law in this country.

But people apparently don’t know that. And so for Republicans, this is about pull. They say, we have a billboard, we have amnesty. That’s why the parents of these children are subjecting them to these dangerous trips.

GWEN IFILL: Jeff Flake, senator from Arizona and a proponent of broad-based immigration reform, was on the program last night, and he didn’t sound very optimistic that even when the discussion turns to children, that it’s going to change the trajectory of this debate, where things seem stuck in the House.

TODD ZWILLICH: One of the things that Republicans want out of this is a very strong advertisement to these Central American countries that sending your kids to the border won’t work.

Now, how would that advertisement work? This is one of the areas of policy debate that’s going to happen here. In some cases, it may actually be advertisement. It may be billboards and outreach by the State Department in these countries, working with the Hondurans and the Guatemalans to tell their own citizens that it’s not a good strategy to send your kids. As bad as things are at home, they won’t be able to stay.

But Jeff Flake and others said on the Hill today — and he may have said it on the program — that the very best advertisement, to Republicans, is lots and lots of people returning home right after they left. There’s no better advertisement for folks in the neighborhood than to know that it didn’t work. It’s not useful to go to the U.S. border because you can’t stay.

GWEN IFILL: What is the fate of the behind-the-scenes conversation now, Carrie? We saw president get off Air Force One, meet with Governor Perry, who has said he was going to meet him on the tarmac. They got on Marine One, the helicopter, and flew to their — and flew and drove to their next event together. There is some rapprochement there.

Is there any here in Washington?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: No, I don’t that.

I think things are really in flux right now with the House Republicans trying to decide what to put forward on their end. You saw the speaker say that we do have to act. They do have to do something. There’s only three weeks until they take a break for a good part of August into September.

It’s really still hard to see how they come to a meeting of the minds even on something like this. Immigration has been so difficult for these two parties. They talk past each other. One side says the border has been more secure than it ever has been, and now this issue comes up and say, what are you talking about?  Now this proves that you were not telling the truth about the border being secure.

It’s very difficult, two sides to mesh. And that’s been the problem all along.

TODD ZWILLICH: But there are signs — if I can say, there are signs of real effort on the Hill, taking into account this problem.

Immigration reform has failed. The sides can’t agree. Republicans can’t agree among themselves. Democrats can’t agree with Republicans. We all know that. But there are signs of real effort on the Hill. If you notice, Republican leaders didn’t respond to this request from the president, this emergency supplemental, the way you would expect them to, by saying, has to be paid for, this all has to be offset with spending elsewhere.

Now, conservatives hate that. They want it offset. But you didn’t see the speaker say that. He’s left the door open to a real discussion with the White House. On the Senate side, you showed a clip from the Senate floor when Senator Cruz and other Republican colleagues were having a colloquy.

There was a moment that was very interesting in Cruz’s speech. He began sort of familiar refrain for Ted Cruz, railing against the White House for amnesty, for holding the border hostage to amnesty. And his colleagues, conservatives, John Cornyn, his colleague from Texas, sort of interrupted him and took the discussion back from Ted Cruz.

John McCain participated to sort of sideline what they saw as inflammatory talk to try to keep this contained on one issue.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t this threat of executive action from the White House kind of an irritant? Doesn’t it work against cooperation?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Oh, absolutely it does.

And I think that it’s going to this — both sides — both issue is clouded by the other, and they’re feeding into each other. And the executive actions, his promise to do big things with his own pen, it’s all tied into this because Republicans are blaming this crisis on the border now on the president’s executive action in 2012, allowing young undocumented children who were brought to the country by their parents to stay in the country.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: So all the issues are getting mixed up.

GWEN IFILL: Including — Katrina has been thrown into the mix now.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Yes. I mean, yes.

TODD ZWILLICH: The president’s Katrina, as Republicans say.

And both there’s the rhetoric of how fractious immigration reform really on both sides, and particularly with conservatives. But there is an effort on the Hill. Look, right now, Republicans really, really want you to know, they pull you aside and say this is the president’s problem. It happened on the president’s watch.

They want the president to go to the border. They want the president to be photographed dealing with his problem. But they’re also sensitive to the consequence of not being able to solve a problem that’s about the kids. If they can’t put something together and get an agreement with Democrats about a sensitive issue, then they’re going own it too.

GWEN IFILL: And they’re a problem that could come back haunt them in the next elections.

Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico, Todd Zwillich from PRI, thank you both very much.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Thank you.

TODD ZWILLICH: Pleasure.