Cancel the Crazy Katrina Catnip

Immigration woes need clarity, not click-happy metaphors.

NOGALES, AZ - JUNE 18: A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer helps two young boys pick out clothes as they join hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children as they are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images)
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
July 10, 2014, 11:37 a.m.

DAL­LAS — Kat­rina is Kat­rina.

Noth­ing else com­pares in terms of en­gin­eer­ing, man­age­ment, and gov­ern­ment fail­ure. It is a sin­gu­lar night­mare of nature. A mael­strom of hu­man bungling in­tens­i­fied its misery with har­row­ing, near-hom­icid­al ef­fect.

For those who for­get, 1,833 Amer­ic­ans died in Hur­ricane Kat­rina and its af­ter­math. Fifty-three levees in and around New Or­leans were breached, sub­mer­ging 80 per­cent of the city. The U.S. Coast Guard res­cued 33,500 stran­ded people. Three mil­lion lost elec­tri­city. Fed­er­al dis­aster de­clar­a­tions covered 90,000 square miles — nearly the area of the United King­dom. Prop­erty dam­ages equaled $108 bil­lion.

A sorry trin­ity of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, Lous­i­ana Gov. Kath­leen Blanco, and New Or­leans May­or Ray Nagin botched pre-storm pre­par­a­tions and evac­u­ations. Bush and Blanco fought point­lessly over jur­is­dic­tion while the ma­rooned suffered on rooftops or in­side dysto­pi­an shel­ters like the Su­per­dome and New Or­leans Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. What ap­palls in Kat­rina is the ut­ter ab­sence of con­spir­acy. Banal in­eptitude killed and sickened people.

Bush’s for­lorn aer­i­al in­spec­tion of Kat­rina’s dam­age con­veyed a sense of be­wil­der­ment bor­der­ing on in­dif­fer­ence. In this, com­par­is­ons can prove too con­veni­ent. Kat­rina cat­nip seizes the ima­gin­a­tion of those grasp­ing for meta­phors (and Web clicks) to de­scribe a pres­id­ent vexed or over­whelmed by a crisis.

Pres­id­ent Obama already re­ceived that treat­ment with the Gulf oil spill. And Demo­crat­ic Rep. Henry Cuel­lar of Texas gave him the busi­ness earli­er this week over the 57,000 un­ac­com­pan­ied minors from Cent­ral Amer­ica now be­ing de­tained in Texas and else­where.

Whatever the im­mig­ra­tion mess is, Kat­rina it is not. Hu­man­it­ari­an needs are be­ing met in a gen­er­ally or­derly fash­ion, with food, cloth­ing, and ele­ment­al med­ic­al care provided. The quar­ters are cramped — but they are not hellish. Due pro­cess is prom­ised and safe pas­sage guar­an­teed if de­port­a­tions are ordered.

But the Kat­rina cat­nip tempts politi­cians who ought to know bet­ter.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry coyly de­ployed it in my in­ter­view for CBS News after his face-to-face meet­ing with Obama in Dal­las.

The Re­pub­lic­an cri­ti­cized Obama, as Cuel­lar did with more vig­or, for fail­ing to in­spect the im­mig­ra­tion mess in the Rio Grande Val­ley. Then he pivoted to Kat­rina.

“That’s what gov­ernors and pres­id­ents do. When there is a tragedy, when there is a nat­ur­al dis­aster or wheth­er it is a man-made dis­aster as this one is, that’s what pres­id­ents do,” Perry said. “They show up. They in­ter­act and they see for them­selves what’s go­ing on. If I re­call, Pres­id­ent Bush got chas­tised greatly for not show­ing up in New Or­leans when Kat­rina oc­curred.”

I asked Perry if this situ­ation com­pared with Kat­rina. He hes­it­ated be­fore lim­it­ing the in­dict­ment to a lack of gov­ern­ment foresight.

“There are a lot of people who are talk­ing about it in those terms. I think when you look at the po­ten­tial “¦ when you see the thou­sands of in­di­vidu­als that are be­ing dis­placed, when you.”¦”

Perry paused and took a breath.

“The par­al­lel for me is that when we know a hur­ricane is com­ing, we put things in place so that we can deal with it. I have told this ad­min­is­tra­tion and oth­ers have told this ad­min­is­tra­tion for years that this was ex­actly go­ing to hap­pen.”

Perry sent a let­ter to Obama in May 2012 about a 90 per­cent year-over-year in­crease in un­ac­com­pan­ied minors cross­ing in­to Texas from El Sal­vador, Guatem­ala, and Hon­dur­as. Then, the num­bers of minors be­ing de­tained was 5,200. It is now more than 10 times that size.

The gov­ernor said he could see the crisis com­ing. The White House said the surge of chil­dren this year was un­fore­seen. That’s a le­git­im­ate dif­fer­ence of opin­ion with real-world rami­fic­a­tions and polit­ic­al costs. Kat­rina hy­per­bole cheapens the de­bate and ob­scures the clash over what to do next.

For ex­ample, Perry wants Obama to or­der 1,000 Na­tion­al Guard troops to the bor­der and sta­tion Bor­der Patrol agents along­side them in a hy­brid mil­it­ary-law-en­force­ment cor­don. He ar­gues the prac­tic­al and sym­bol­ic im­pact will re­ver­ber­ate through Cent­ral Amer­ica. From our in­ter­view:

Perry: I told the pres­id­ent, “You can ad­dress this and you can ad­dress it very quickly by pick­ing up the phone and dir­ect­ing the De­part­ment of De­fense to put a thou­sand Na­tion­al Guard troops on that bor­der.” And the mes­sage will be sent to South Amer­ica [sic] very quickly that the bor­der is se­cure — you can­not send your chil­dren be­cause they are not go­ing to be walk­ing across or swim­ming across or car­ried across the Rio Grande and stay in the U.S. That is no longer pos­sible.

Ma­jor Gar­rett: What you are say­ing is Cent­ral Amer­ic­an coun­tries and par­ents con­sid­er­ing put­ting their chil­dren on these jour­neys need to see a mil­it­ar­ized pres­ence on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der?

Perry: What they need to see is boots on the ground.

Perry then dis­cussed con­ver­sa­tions in Dal­las with Obama and faith lead­ers in­ter­ested in provid­ing the minors tem­por­ary hous­ing.

Perry: These people talk back and forth to each oth­er. [Wed­nes­day] with the faith-based groups that mon­it­or the phone calls go­ing back to Cent­ral Amer­ica the mes­sage is, “It’s great here. They’re tak­ing care of us. It’s a won­der­ful en­vir­on­ment.” That will only cause more to be put on planes and buses and oth­er modes of trans­port­a­tion to come up here. The mes­sage needs to be sent clearly that the bor­der is se­cure and the pres­id­ent can do that. He doesn’t need Con­gress. He can do this.

The White House has re­jec­ted de­ploy­ing Na­tion­al Guard forces, primar­ily be­cause Obama, as he said in Dal­las, does not be­lieve there’s a prob­lem ap­pre­hend­ing the il­leg­ally ar­riv­ing minors.

“The is­sue is not that people are evad­ing our en­force­ment of­fi­cials,” Obama said. “The is­sue is that we’re ap­pre­hend­ing them in large num­bers. And we’re work­ing to make sure that we have suf­fi­cient fa­cil­it­ies to de­tain, house, and pro­cess them ap­pro­pri­ately, while at­tend­ing to un­ac­com­pan­ied chil­dren with the care and com­pas­sion that they de­serve while they’re in our cus­tody.”

Obama also ad­dressed the “he can do this” part of Perry’s de­mand for Na­tion­al Guard troops — pla­cing it in the middle of the long-run­ning dis­pute with GOP con­gres­sion­al lead­ers over the lim­its of ex­ec­ut­ive power.

“As I in­dic­ated to Gov­ernor Perry — he sug­ges­ted, well, maybe you just need to go ahead and act, and that might con­vince Re­pub­lic­ans that they should go ahead and pass the sup­ple­ment­al. And I had to re­mind him I’m get­ting sued right now by [House Speak­er John Boehner], ap­par­ently, for go­ing ahead and act­ing in­stead of go­ing through Con­gress. Well, here’s a good test case.”

Obama said he needs Con­gress’s swift ap­prov­al of $3.7 bil­lion in emer­gency funds for hu­man­it­ari­an and leg­al costs as­so­ci­ated with de­tain­ing and leg­ally re­view­ing the minors’ im­mig­ra­tion status.

“This should not be hard to at least get the sup­ple­ment­al done,” Obama said. “The ques­tion is, are we more in­ter­ested in polit­ics, or are we more in­ter­ested in solv­ing the prob­lem?”

I asked Perry what Re­pub­lic­ans ought to do about the emer­gency-fund­ing re­quest. He said Obama has it back­ward, that he has the au­thor­ity to en­hance bor­der se­cur­ity.

“Here’s what I think the Amer­ic­an people are look­ing for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to clearly show that they’re go­ing to se­cure the bor­der,” Perry said. “We can work with the Bor­der Patrol, Na­tion­al Guard, loc­al law en­force­ment, and we can se­cure the bor­der. When that hap­pens, then I think you will have the Amer­ic­an people, and in turn their elec­ted of­fi­cials, sub­stan­tially more pli­able, if you will, to a piece of le­gis­la­tion.”

Obama said he needs Con­gress to grant him new power to speed up de­port­a­tions for the un­ac­com­pan­ied minors who will not qual­i­fy for refugee or hu­man­it­ari­an re­lief status. Un­der a 2008 anti-sex-traf­fick­ing law, minors out­side of Canada and Mex­ico are guar­an­teed an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing be­fore de­port­a­tion. In the mean­time, Obama said he needs funds to house the minors and build the ma­chinery for faster leg­al re­views and de­port­a­tions. To Obama, it’s Perry who has the se­quence back­ward.

“This is something you say is im­port­ant, as I do,” Obama said in Dal­las, speak­ing to un­named Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics in Con­gress. “This is an area that you have pri­or­it­ized, as I have. Don’t wait for me to take ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions when you have the ca­pa­city right now to go ahead and get something done. I will sign that bill to­mor­row. We’re go­ing to go ahead and do what we can ad­min­is­trat­ively, but this gives us the tools to do many of the very things that Re­pub­lic­ans are seek­ing.”

This is a straight­for­ward dis­agree­ment about di­vided powers, bor­der se­cur­ity, law en­force­ment, due pro­cess, tax­pay­er funds, and polit­ics. It’s play­ing out over the emo­tion­al ter­rain of our his­tor­ic sym­pathy — which has, to be can­did, ebbed and flowed — to im­mig­rants, chil­dren, and the dis­pos­sessed.

Much is at stake. The de­bate is real. Let it pro­ceed without dis­tort­ing driv­el about Kat­rina.

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