Boxed In at the Border

A child-refugee crisis becomes a political test for the President

The humanitarian crisis has been clear for months: since October 2013, more than 50,000 migrant children from Mexico and Central America have been captured at the U.S. border after crossing without adult caretakers. But the political crisis is just now emerging.

President Obama needs to find a way to deal with the influx, and the route he has chosen could dishearten many of his liberal allies while empowering his Republican foes. On July 8, Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency spending to increase border enforcement, provide care for the children and send aid to their home countries. White House aides say he will also seek new authority to deport the children more quickly.

What would change at the border?

Under current law, children from Central America are placed with relatives in the U.S. or other guardians while they await court dates that usually lead to deportation, a process that can take years. Mexican children, by contrast, are screened at the border for humanitarian concerns and can be immediately sent home if none are found. Obama now wants the power to deport all children soon after a screening. “There isn’t really a policy rationale for treating them differently,” a White House official says. Immigrant-rights advocates, however, call this proposed change “unconscionable,” saying it could lead to more innocent children being put in dangerous situations.

How will it play in Congress?

The GOP has long complained that Obama soft-pedaled enforcement, saying the border must be strengthened before any reform can occur. The new bill gives Republicans a chance. They could try to impose new terms, like forcing Obama to dispatch the National Guard to the border, and potentially extract other spending cuts. Or they could argue that the new request for money proves that Obama, who has deported far more migrants than any other U.S. President, has a failed immigration policy.

What are the stakes for Obama?

The crisis has put the immigration issue back on the front pages months before a crucial midterm election. Obama had hoped to wait until the fall to announce several executive actions, which could include new leniency for some undocumented immigrants. But first he needs to win the battle in Congress over the newest border crisis.

The Rundown


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9 in 10

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This appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of TIME.
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