If you’re straining for the right words to describe the House’s unusual, late-night vote on Friday, let the Washington Post’s recap serve as a model of what not to say. Contra the Post’s lede, the House did not pass “two measures to address the child-migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border.” It passed one measure so paltry that it will “address” nothing, and another so nasty that it’s almost beside the point to mention that it has little to do with the migrant crisis.
The first measure appropriated less than $700 million to confront the swelling refugee crisis on our southwestern border, a piddling sum compared to the $3.7 billion President Obama had requested. (The Senate’s failed proposal was slightly better, appropriating $2.7 billion.) Just to put things into perspective: The amount passed by House Republicans is equal to less than half of what Obama requested for the children’s medical care and housing alone—to say nothing of foreign aid, speeding cases through the badly overloaded immigration courts, extra border enforcement, and repatriation. As a response to a humanitarian crisis, it’s pathetic. You don’t get points for handing a Band-Aid to a hemorrhaging man.
The next thing the House did was vote to end the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Through DACA, the President has used his executive-branch authority to give temporary relief from deportation to some undocumented immigrants who were brought over as children. These are the DREAMers—the people who were, until recently, beyond partisan disagreement. Now, the position of House Republicans is that they ought to be deported. That self-inflicted wound of a vote—so deeply offensive to Latinos—occasioned open disbelief from some analysts (Jonathan Chait called it “baffling” and said it “verges on outright sabotage”).
Conservatives defend their anti-DACA stance, and link it to the child-migrant crisis, by arguing that Obama’s policy has encouraged destitute children in Central America to exploit the U.S.’s lenient immigration policies. But as Dara Lind has convincingly shown, there’s just no evidence that this is true. For one thing, the surge in migrations started before Obama announced DACA. Moreover, applications for asylum have surged in many relatively peaceful countries in the region, not just in the U.S. Lastly, surveys of the children arriving at our border show that hardly any of them have ever heard of Obama’s policy—or have any knowledge of how U.S. asylum law treats children. The claim that DACA caused the child-migrant crisis borders on willful ignorance—and as a political move, the vote attacking it can only be understood in terms of the overwhelming whiteness of so many House members’ districts. Almost half of the current House GOP members come from districts that are more than 80 percent white. So even if the national party is worried about provoking generations of lasting hostility among Latino voters, these individual members have little reason to worry about their own seats—at least for now.
Perhaps the only good thing to emerge from this latest ugliness will be an enhanced argument for President Obama to expand his executive actions protecting undocumented immigrants. Allies of the White House have started to leak word that Obama is planning a pre-midterm expansion of protections for new groups of immigrants, including adults with U.S. citizen children. The plan will be “as bold as possible,” according to one advocate.
Obama has run this play before: DACA, you may recall, was announced in June 2012, and was timed to highlight the contrast with Mitt “self-deportation” Romney. But this latest move, I suspect, is not only a political gambit (although, to be sure, it is that). The plan is also an attempt to solidify protections for groups of immigrants whom the President has previously tried to relieve through “prosecutorial discretion.” Under that approach, the Administration merely issues recommendations to the immigration bureaucracy about prioritizing criminals and repeat offenders over DREAMers and other sympathetic cases. It does not take the further step of institutionalizing a positive application process, in the way that a new executive action probably would.
At this point, that’s probably the only way forward. To date, a discretion-based approach has proven grossly inadequate, as agencies have mostly ignored the president’s priorities. And Republican politicians have been hearing desperate warnings about Latino voters—from their own side, even!—since Romney’s defeat almost two years ago. As Friday’s vote shows, they’re not quite ready for that message, to put it lightly. When it comes to undocumented immigrants, DACA-eligible DREAMers, or the tens of thousands of children who have recently arrived at our border, the House GOP has chosen open, loudly voiced hostility. It’s a stupefying state of affairs, but one that is unlikely to change before the end of this presidency.