For months now, Rep. Luis Gutierrez and immigration rights groups have been setting the stage for a mid-summer push to convince President Obama to ease up on the deportation of those who entered the country illegally.
If the Republican-controlled House of Representatives didn’t act on comprehensive immigration reform legislation by July 4, the argument went, it would be up to Obama to use his executive powers to fill the void. Gutierrez even said Obama was ready to go along, the only question being how far he would go.
That was then. This is now.
In the meantime, thousands and thousands of children from Central America began showing up unexpectedly at the Mexican border seeking entry to the U.S. — and in the process dramatically altered the political dynamic for those already here by re-fueling anti-immigrant sentiments.
Unfortunately for those children, some Americans look at those big brown eyes and see nothing but future Democratic voters.
On Tuesday, Gutierrez and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights stuck to their earlier game plan, demanding Obama take action now to slow the deportations.
“We’re here to say: Do it today,” the Chicago Democrat said, while urging his allies to approach this more in a coaxing manner than as angry protesters, considering that Obama is the “one friend we have.”
But Obama didn’t address their concerns Tuesday.
He was too busy dealing with the Central American refugee crisis, asking Congress for $3.7 billion that would be used to care for the children and speed up the legal process required to return them home, though not fast enough to suit his critics.
It was never a sure thing Obama would take the dramatic steps Gutierrez said he was anticipating, and now you have to wonder how long it will be before the President is inclined to make any move as he uses his political capital just to maneuver out of the current humanitarian crisis amid the usual Washington fingerpointing.
“Does it complicate things? Absolutely,” Gutierrez told me, while arguing nonetheless that the problem of the so-called “unaccompanied minors” from Central America should be dealt with separately from the larger immigration issue.
“It is not a reason to not do something. It is a reason to do something,” Gutierrez had argued earlier at his new conference.
Republicans don’t see it that way, of course. They see this as another example of the never-ending supply of those beyond our borders encouraged by any effort to legally recognize and accept the millions of people already living in the shadows.
As Gutierrez says, there certainly are significant differences between the everyday immigration challenge of people sneaking across the border and the Central American refugees, who actually seek out Border Patrol agents to turn themselves in because of special, albeit temporary, legal protections for children who aren’t from Mexico or Canada.
But at the core, I think the issues are the same: people coming here in pursuit of a better life and those who would oppose them out of concern the new immigrants are taking something away from them.
It might be easier for the Central Americans if they came from communist countries. Republicans are always much more soft-hearted about accepting refugees from the likes of Cuba or, back in the day, Nicaragua.
These folks are mainly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Escaping any of your garden variety authoritarian, crime-ridden regimes don’t elicit as much sympathy from the right.
But the Obama administration says most of them will be sent home, and I can only hope we do so humanely as there doesn’t seem to be much of an option at this time.
You know me, I’m for amnesty (with strings attached), which we call a “path to citizenship” to try to keep from riling up the haters, who don’t seem to be fooled. Keep in mind there were plenty of strings attached in the bipartisan immigration reform legislation that was approved by the Senate, only to languish in the House.
People ask me where it all will stop if we legalize those already here, and I don’t have any reassuring answers because I believe immigration will always be driven by factors beyond our immediate political control.
But I also believe that we can devise a better system than we have now, one that recognizes the realities on the ground and seeks to restore order within the context of our immigrant-friendly heritage.
If we’d had such a system, it might have saved those Central American kids a lot of grief.