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.”