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Obama on Immigration: from humanitarian crisis to post-election afterthought

Two months ago the increasing number of children attempting to migrate into the United States captured the attention of US leaders, citizens and human rights advocates. The average of 10,000 unaccompanied children taken into custody by Border Patrol in both May and June drew concerns about a growing crisis. Public debates were had about how to deal with the influx of people to the US border and President Obama promised to issue an executive order to alleviate the problem.

Two months later we have an answer. Well, a sort of answer. The President will do nothing until the November elections. A crisis that demanded immediate attention and action was just kicked a bit further down the road so as not to encumber the campaign process. The President denied and then sidestepped the issue of whether the elections play a role in the delay, to Chuck Todd in an interview on Meet the Press Sunday.

“The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem,” said Obama. “I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.”

The problem of immigration was downplayed by Obama in the interview. He told Todd that it was less of an issue than Americans think it is because overall illegal immigration is down over the past decade and the rate of unaccompanied children has declined since June. The rate fell by nearly half in July when 5,508 children were taken into custody. Adults fell by even more during the same period, from 16,330 to 7,410, reported the Border Patrol.

Where are the migrant children coming from? (Credit: NY Times)

Where are the migrant children coming from? (Credit: NY Times)

The news of the sudden rise in young immigrants garnered the attention of the President and his political opponents earlier this summer. The issue rose to such an important level in US politics that it was in part the reason why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost in the Republican primary for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. His opponent Dave Brat accused the Congressman of being too liberal on the issue of immigration. That charge, among others, stuck and helped Brat pull off a stunning victory over Cantor.

The conversation over immigration continued as it has for the past decade. Some Republicans want more to be done to protect the border and criminalize those who enter illegally. There is agreement between some members in both parties to allow for a path to citizenship, especially for children who entered without their choice, and other reforms like making higher education more accessible. It was the lack of consensus that compelled Obama to consider actions beyond the halls of Congress.

Obama’s depiction of immigration into the US now is very different than it was two months ago. The President made a $3.7 billion request to Congress in order to respond to a developing “humanitarian crisis,” as he called it. The political impact of the immigration debate may explain the President’s shift on the issue. More than 63,000 children who have been caught since last October. Most come from the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

It is a dramatic shift from 2009 when the majority of children were coming from Mexico. Insecurity, violence and poverty are among the factors behind the change. Central American now represent more than 70% of the unaccompanied minors trying to to get to the US. Nearly 60% of 404 children surveyed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said safety was the reason they left their homes for the US.

“They are leaving for some reason. Let’s not send them back in a mechanical way, but rather evaluate the reasons they left their country,” said Fernando Protti, regional representative for UNHCR to the AP in July.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]