Following a tour of immigration facilities along the Texas-Mexico border Friday, U.S. Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered different opinions of whom to blame for the immigration crisis involving tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children attempting to cross into the United States illegally.
Collins said President Barack Obama has been slow to counter the perception that these children will be allowed to stay if they reach U.S. soil. She also said the president is pursuing a “piecemeal” approach to the problem rather than a comprehensive solution.
King said the president could have been more forceful in telling Central Americans there is no “free pass” to come to the U.S., but that the president isn’t solely to blame.
“I think it’s an overstatement to blame Obama for this,” King said, pointing to a host of economic and social problems afflicting El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. He said part of the answer should be to help those countries solve their problems and assist Mexico in securing its own southern border with Central America.
The visits by King, Collins and other elected officials came the same day that the U.S. House approved two measures to address the child-migrant crisis. The bills would provide about $700 million in emergency funding, speed the deportations of most border-crossers and rescind Obama’s authority to decide whether to deport certain illegal immigrants.
The Senate won’t take up the measures until Congress returns in September, and with the White House and most Democrats strongly opposed, they are unlikely to become law.
Also Friday, the Washington Post reported that Obama is preparing to announce new measures that would potentially allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States without fear of deportation, a politically explosive decision that could jolt Washington just weeks before the midterm elections, according to people who have been in touch with the White House.
Administration officials have told allies in private meetings that both the current surge of Central American children crossing the border and Congress’ failure this year to pass a broader immigration overhaul have propelled the president toward taking action on his own by summer’s end, the Post reported.
Obama aides have discussed a range of options that could provide legal protections and work permits to a significant portion of the nation’s more than 11 million undocumented residents, said Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocates who have met recently with White House officials. Ideas under consideration could include temporary relief for law-abiding undocumented immigrants who are closely related to U.S. citizens or those who have lived in the country a certain number of years – a population that advocates say could reach as high as 5 million, according to the Post.
For weeks, the nation’s attention has been focused on the child-migrant crisis.
In the meantime, many of the tens of thousands of children attempting to migrate from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are being held in detention facilities by federal immigration authorities while elected officials in Washington have argued over how to deal with the new arrivals.
King and Collins were among seven senators who toured detention centers and the border itself in the Rio Grande Valley Friday. They visited the McAllen Border Patrol Station, the Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center, Hidalgo International Bridge and detention facilities at Lackland Air Force Base.
Both said the centers seem well-run and children held there are in clean, relatively comfortable surroundings, are getting medical attention and attending school.
“It wasn’t any place you’d want your kids spending a lot of time,” King told the Portland Press Herald on Friday night, but when he asked a worker if the kids ever tried to get away, the worker laughed at the notion they would want to leave.
King said he watched a class being held in a tent, where the children sang both the Guatemalan and American national anthems.
“It was touching to see these kids sing, ‘Oh, say can you see,’ ” he said, “but I’m not sure they knew what they were singing.”
Collins said she was surprised by the quality of the detention centers, although the holding facilities where children go before they move in with the rest of the children “were pretty bleak,” she said.
Collins said she was caught off guard by how many of the children were teenage boys, 14 to 17 years old, suggesting, she said, they came to the U.S. primarily in search of work.
King said he came away with the sense that the border itself is relatively secure, but that immigration courts are overwhelmed. Deciding which immigrants are simply seeking jobs and should be sent back, and which are true refugees fleeing crime and drugs is a complex process.
The House passed the first of the two bills about the time the two Maine senators were landing in Washington. Both said the administration’s request of $3.7 billion to step up border operations was too much – the House bill calls for about $700 million. King said a portion of the House bill that could lead to the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to America as children seemed punitive to him.
Collins said Congress needs to review and probably kill a 2008 law that established different deportation procedures for children from Central American nations than apply to those crossing the border from Canada or Mexico – the latter are deported almost immediately.
“I don’t think that it makes sense to treat a teenager from Mexico, who might also be fleeing violence and drugs, different from a teenager from Central America,” Collins said.
King said he wants to learn more about the rationale for that law, but agreed the process needs to be reviewed and possibly changed.
Both King and Collins said it takes far too long – an average of two years – for migrant children to get a hearing on whether they’ll be allowed to stay in the U.S.
King also said the impact of the crisis isn’t confined to Texas and the Southwest.
King said there’s a backlog of people in Maine, primarily Somalis, who are seeking asylum in the U.S. As more immigration resources are shifted to the southern border, he said, there may be fewer people available for handling asylum cases and that could make the backlog here worse.
Joining the Maine delegation were fellow Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, and John Boozman, R-Arkansas.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: