Why Won’t Obama Call These Kids Refugees?

The White House’s rhetoric on the border crisis has frustrated advocates, who see the president as playing into the hands of the GOP.

A child looks out of the window of a bus as it arrives to San Pedro Sula, 240 kms north of Tegucigalpa, on July 2, 2014, after being deported from the US. Thousands of unaccompanied children, most of them from Central America, have trekked to the United States in recent months and now face deportation in what the United States has called a humanitarian crisis.
National Journal
James Oliphant
July 16, 2014, 12:42 p.m.

For all the talk­ing the pres­id­ent and his aides have done about the child-mi­grant crisis at the south­w­est bor­der, there’s one word they haven’t uttered: refugee.

It’s a rhet­or­ic­al choice that says much about the way Pres­id­ent Obama and the White House view the polit­ics of the situ­ation.

While con­ced­ing that the dangers faced by the tens of thou­sands of chil­dren who have fled coun­tries such as Hon­dur­as and Guatem­ala are real and sig­ni­fic­ant, the White House, from Obama on down, has con­sist­ently played down the pro­spect of the United States of­fer­ing them safety and pro­tec­tion, in­stead fo­cus­ing on ways to ac­cel­er­ate re­mov­al pro­ceed­ings.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stead­fast re­fus­al to make a case to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic for keep­ing many of the chil­dren in the coun­try has alarmed ad­voc­ates who worry that the White House is too con­cerned about ap­pear­ing soft on im­mig­ra­tion while Con­gress wrestles with a $3.7 bil­lion sup­ple­ment­al budget re­quest to deal with the crisis.

“Why is this ad­min­is­tra­tion jet­tis­on­ing these kids and align­ing it­self with House Re­pub­lic­ans?” asked Kev­in Ap­pleby, who over­sees mi­gra­tion policy at the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Cath­ol­ic Bish­ops.

At times, the White House has talked about the child-mi­grant crisis us­ing the tra­di­tion­al rhet­or­ic­al tent­poles of the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate, es­pe­cially with re­gard to in­creas­ing bor­der se­cur­ity, even though ex­perts in­sist that this is a sep­ar­ate is­sue with a dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ic. “I don’t think it’s help­ful,” said Wendy Young, pres­id­ent of Kids in Need of De­fense, which as­sists un­ac­com­pan­ied minors seek­ing ad­mit­tance to the U.S. “Asylum is fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent than im­mig­ra­tion.”

That con­fla­tion has handed the GOP an is­sue to run with and has con­fused the pub­lic about the nature of the prob­lem, crit­ics say. Obama didn’t help mat­ters in Texas last week when he chided Re­pub­lic­ans for fail­ing to pass a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill, while Josh Earn­est, the White House press sec­ret­ary, pledged that most of the chil­dren would be re­turned to their home coun­tries, sug­gest­ing their status was a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

At the daily press brief­ing Wed­nes­day, Earn­est was asked wheth­er the chil­dren at the bor­der were in fact “refugees.” He said he would leave that de­term­in­a­tion up to an im­mig­ra­tion judge, adding, “That’s cer­tainly not a de­clar­a­tion I want to make from here.” In­stead, the press sec­ret­ary has been call­ing them, among oth­er things, “in­di­vidu­als who have been ap­pre­hen­ded.”

Ad­voc­ates made their case for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to take a more hu­mane stance in a meet­ing at the White House last week, but were force­fully countered by Obama, who ar­gued that only an ag­gress­ive U.S. re­sponse would de­ter fam­il­ies in Cent­ral Amer­ica from send­ing their chil­dren on the dan­ger­ous trek north­ward.

“It was a very con­ten­tious dis­cus­sion,” said Frank Sharry, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Amer­ica’s Voice, which sup­ports im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “He was crys­tal-clear that he had to get tough — to send a de­terrent mes­sage.

“He was try­ing to con­vince us that he was do­ing this for all the right reas­ons,” Sharry ad­ded. “It wasn’t work­ing.”

The White House has been at odds, too, with Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, a Demo­crat, who last week blas­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the crisis. “It is con­trary to everything we stand for as a people to try to sum­mar­ily send chil­dren back to death .”‰.”‰. in a place where drug gangs are the greatest threat to sta­bil­ity, rule of law, and demo­crat­ic in­sti­tu­tions in this hemi­sphere,” O’Mal­ley said at a meet­ing of the Na­tion­al Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation.

Ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, O’Mal­ley later re­ceived a call from Cecil­ia Mun­oz, Obama’s do­mest­ic policy dir­ect­or, who was un­happy with his re­marks.

The United Na­tions Refugee Agency, UN­HCR, earli­er this year es­tim­ated that 58 per­cent of young mi­grants from Cent­ral Amer­ica are en­titled to “in­ter­na­tion­al pro­tec­tion.” Ad­voc­ates ar­gue that the United States is be­ing hy­po­crit­ic­al after send­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions in aid over­seas to help oth­er na­tions re­settle refugees from Syr­ia’s civil war.

“I just wish [the White House] would come out and say not all these kids de­serve pro­tec­tion, but a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of them do,” Sharry said.

Im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates have been par­tic­u­larly crit­ic­al of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sig­nal that it would fa­vor a modi­fic­a­tion of a 2008 hu­man-traf­fick­ing law in­ten­ded to help young mi­grants flee­ing per­se­cu­tion. A pro­pos­al by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Henry Cuel­lar, D-Texas, to change the law so that mi­grants from Cent­ral Amer­ica would be treated in the same man­ner as Mex­ic­an bor­der-cross­ers has been harshly de­nounced by the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus, which met with Obama Wed­nes­day at the White House.

The change would al­low bor­der agents to screen pos­sible re­quests for asylum and pro­tec­tion and speed up the de­port­a­tion pro­cess. “It means these kids would nev­er get a hear­ing,” Young said.

The White House has not yet said wheth­er it sup­ports the Cornyn-Cuel­lar plan, but it’s ex­pec­ted to be a com­pon­ent of any budget bill that emerges from the House. Young said that might ex­plain the White House’s pos­ture to date. “They clearly want the sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing. I think they’re hedging their bets. They’re afraid they might need to change the law,” she said. “But I think they’re still in pan­ic mode.”

Young, who used to work as a staffer on the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee un­der Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy, wishes her former boss were still around. Asked if she was dis­ap­poin­ted in Obama, she hal­ted. “I have great ad­mir­a­tion for him,” she said after a mo­ment. “This is a time when he should demon­strate great­er lead­er­ship — and stand up for the chil­dren.”

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