One year ago, President Barack Obama and Democrats were making a unified push to pass comprehensive immigration reform, while a divided Republican Party debated how to respond.
Today, it’s the Democrats who appear divided in their response to the wave of tens of thousands of Central American children who have crossed into the United States without a parent or guardian.
The Obama administration is leading a push to ease legal restrictions on removal procedures for unaccompanied Central American children. But others in the president’s party don’t want to hasten deportations out of concern the kids could fall prey of gang violence in their home countries. Some Democrats are even echoing Republican criticism that the White House allowed the crisis to worsen by ignoring early warning signs.
How Democrats resolve this internal dispute could prove crucial to the success of Obama’s broader effort to address the immigration crisis. Fumbling the response could also threaten to sap Latino support from the party before the November midterm elections.
“It’s created a whole new dynamic in the immigration debate, there’s no doubt about that,” Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network, a progressive think tank and advocacy group in Washington, told Fusion in an interview.
Meanwhile, the immigration crisis appears to be unifying Republicans. The party has collectively blamed Obama’s immigration policies for causing the problem at the border.
Lawmakers in both parties are considering changes to a 2008 anti-human trafficking law that bars the government from quickly deporting unaccompanied migrant children from countries other than Mexico or Canada. Several legislative proposals would allow expedited removals of minors, regardless of nationality.
The White House is also asking for $3.7 billion to clear the backlog in immigration courts, lessen overcrowding in detention centers, and warn parents of children in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador not to send their kids on the dangerous trek to the United States.
The president wants more flexibility to quickly remove children and adults who were part of the latest wave of migrants, according to senior White House officials. “Articulating our commitment to enforcing the law should serve as an effective deterrent; so should actually enforcing the law,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
Almost all Democrats are on board with the funding request, but disagree over how quickly the children should be sent home.
“We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said during a speech in Nashville last Friday, adding that the children should be considered “refugees.”
O’Malley, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is staking out a position to the left of Obama and the Democrats’ presumed frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
The governor’s comments caused immediate political backlash. According to press reports, O’Malley urged a top White House official not to house migrant kids at a federal facility in his home state on the same night he made his speech in Nashville.
The holding site is located in a conservative part of the state, and was recently scrawled with anti-immigrant graffiti. An O’Malley spokesperson said the governor is working to find an alternative site in Maryland.
“Governor O’Malley has been discussing this issue for weeks with the White House,” said O’Malley spokesperson Nina Smith.
Legislation to speed up deportations of Central American youth could also face an uphill battle in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday came out against the bipartisan proposal to overturn the 2008 anti-trafficking law.
Other Senate Democrats have also voiced concern over the bill.
“This law was designed to protect children who are refugees or trafficking victims, and I will not support any legislative proposals aimed at rolling back or diluting it,” Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) said in a statement. The lawmaker has joined others in calling on Obama to use his executive power to offer deportation-relief to undocumented immigrants who would have otherwise received legal status if comprehensive immigration reform had passed.
Republican leaders reportedly want to spend less money addressing the border crisis, and they want policy changes to hasten deportations passed along with the funding.
But failure to reach an agreement also poses a political risk for Republicans. An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the crisis, but Republicans in Congress receive an even worse mark, with 66 percent disapproving of the way they have tackled the issue.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.