A lot of Texas politicians are having a political pachanga with the influx of child refugees fleeing Central America.
Rick Perry has practically lived in front of a TV camera over the last month, talking tough about a border crackdown, bashing Obama for not visiting the Rio Grande Valley, and posing with Sean Hannity on a DPS gunboat. On Monday, the governor—joined by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott—announced that he was dispatching 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, part of a Texas-led border surge costing $12 million a month. Ted Cruz is floating a proposal to roll back modest protections afforded by President Obama to DREAMers. Wendy Davis keeps calling on Perry to declare a state of emergency and hold a special session on immigration at the Texas Legislature—for reasons even her most ardent supporters have struggled to articulate.
Sen. John Cornyn and Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, are sponsoring the hopefully named HUMANE Act, which would undo rewrite a 2008 anti-trafficking law that allowed children from countries other than Mexico and Canada to be released to family members in the U.S. while their cases are processed. Under the proposed legislation, Central American kids—six, seven, eight years old—would have to convince a Border Patrol agent that they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. long enough to plead their case, and then would have just seven days, probably unassisted by an attorney, to make a case for asylum, or other protections, in front of an immigration judge. The effect—and one assumes, the intent—would most likely be to greatly diminish the number of children and families receiving asylum and refugee protections.
The most powerful politicos in the state pretty much agree: the border is in crisis, the Central American children are a sad case but, alas, must be deported and the federal government is all to blame. Unspoken: The border crisis makes for great election-year politics.
For Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), it’s all sickeningly out of touch with reality. There is no border crisis, he told me in an interview on Tuesday. Apprehensions are at historic lows. El Paso, and other border cities, are among the safest in the nation. In any case, the U.S. bears much responsibility for the conditions in Central America driving the exodus. And we should be expanding protections for refugees, not gutting them. The HUMANE Act—or as he calls it, “the quote-unquote HUMANE Act”—is a “very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response” to a flood of refugees that deserve compassion, not neglect or opprobrium, O’Rourke said.
It’s not exactly the message you’re hearing from Texas elected officials. But O’Rourke, who grew up in El Paso and speaks fluent Spanish, brings a border sensibility to the issue, tempered by a wide-angle internationalism that’s a rarity among Texas pols. He’s more Open Veins of Latin America than Fox News.
O’Rourke is but a freshman congressman in a Republican-controlled House, so his ability to craft policy in Washington is admittedly limited. But he’s pledging to work within the Democratic caucus to torpedo the HUMANE Act, especially if it’s tied to the president’s $3.7 billion request for funding to pay for handling the surge of child refugees.
Beyond the legislation, O’Rourke offers a remarkably different perspective on border and immigration realities than the hysteria that’s taken hold in some quarters. Here are some highlights of our interview:
On the HUMANE Act:
“I’m trying to find polite words, quotable comments. It’s terrible legislation, I find nothing redeeming in it. It will rush these kids back to the communities from which they fled, which in many cases will almost certainly mean death, will mean suffering, and adding to the workforce of these criminal syndicates that are pressing them into service in cities like San Pedro Sula in Honduras.”
“One of the terrible bargains that whoever was here in 2008 made was in order to treat child refugees or child asylum-seekers from other countries humanely we will not treat asylum seekers from Mexico humanely, so we’ll reduce the level of due process that they get. So what Cornyn, Cuellar and [Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ)] want to do is take that reduced level and apply it to everyone else, and obviously that means the kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“The HUMANE Act changes the [asylum] framework and accelerates it so that within seven days—and I’ve got three little kids and I can only imagine them having to struggle with this—within a week they have to prove to a judge in a language that’s not their own, without the assistance of an attorney, that they should qualify for an asylum process, a trafficking visa or some other legitimate reason to stay. If they can’t, they are deported—that’s so wrong on so many levels. And we can see the evidence from how we’ve treated children from Mexico: This almost certainly guarantees that the vast majority—I think in the case of Mexican children it’s been well over 90 percent—will be returned to their country of origin. And we know what’s going to happen to those kids.
“I’m confident, absolutely confident that once my colleagues have the facts and realize what this will do to kids they will also vote against it.”
On why Cuellar would sponsor the HUMANE Act:
“That is what has been so hard to understand for me… You’re asking a really good question. Why these kind of—I don’t know what the right word for them is—these proposals that just really don’t make any sense and aren’t responsive to what we’re seeing and what we know about the border. That I don’t know.
“It is not helpful when you have Democrats who traditionally have been the party that would want to see due process, especially for kids fleeing violence, who I feel like have upheld some of the best humanitarian traditions of this country, it makes it tough when you have Democrats sponsoring bills like the the HUMANE Act, which for all the talk and attention could become part of this deal, then it becomes much harder to say any one party is responding appropriately.”
On the notion of a border “crisis”:
“We really don’t have a crisis. You look at total apprehensions this year, last year, the year before, the year before that, we’re at an all-time historical low. If you compare the data as of June this year and compare it to 1999, you’re down about 68 percent in terms of apprehensions at the southern border. It’s not a law enforcement problem. Cities like El Paso are safer than any other city in the country. The U.S. side of the U.S.—Mexico border is safer than the average American city.”
On the root causes of the exodus from Central America:
“You look at these three countries and the enormous stresses that are placed on them right now, whether it’s the volume of drugs being trafficked through them, whether it’s our drug interdiction efforts that are further destabilizing civil society there.
“A much more difficult, but probably much more fundamental issue, is just the very long history of U.S. involvement in Central America to the detriment of the people who live there going back to Jacobo Arbenz to the military strongmen who succeeded him to the tens of thousands who were killed to our involvement in the civil wars in the 1980s to the kids—and you’ve probably seen this in the [Observer] archives—you look at the reporting in the mid-’80s, kids are fleeing Central America for the United States, many of them because we had no process then to accept them.
“There was no trafficking victims law, so they weren’t sent over to [U.S. Health and Human Services]. Many of them ended up in jails and became hardened criminals, got involved in gangs and then upon release from jail are deported back to the countries where they haven’t spent the majority of their lives in, and end up organizing gang cells, essentially, in those countries and helping to contribute to the problem we see today.
“We’ve tried our best to ignore Central America, prioritizing Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel—all for good reasons, it seemed at the time, but we neglected [Central America] and the consequence is that there are now literally tens of thousands of kids literally knocking on our door, saying ‘Hey, what about us?’ And we’ve got to do something about it. And I think the very short-sighted, inhumane, irrational response is embodied in the HUMANE Act. You can deport those kids back and some of them are going to be killed, many of them are going to be hurt and live worse lives for being deported, but those problems aren’t going away.”
On what should be done:
“No. 1, let’s get these kids attorneys. Anyone who has children can put themselves in the place of the parents of the children who are now in this process. When you can do that, when you can empathize, you immediately understand that those kids need an attorney. These are really complex laws, these are frightening situations and to put a child before an immigration judge at age 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 without an attorney is just wrong and on the flip side to give that child counsel allows them to tell their story, to make a legitimate application for asylum. And we will find in some cases that there is not a legitimate case, that they have not passed the credible fear bar and they should be sent back to their country of origin. That’s a very difficult thing to say but that’s going to have to happen in some cases. But I think we will find in quite a number of these cases, and I would argue in the great majority of them, that we have legitimate asylum requests and they should be honored. That’s just the right thing to do…
“The most important, most difficult and long term answer, is to help get these countries back on the right track. We know that kids and families leaving these three countries are not just going to the U.S. Asylum applications in neighboring countries are up 700 percent over the last five years. So let’s work with Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and join them with these three countries—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—and come up with a truly regional response. Part of which is just gonna be let’s acknowledge that we need to take some of these children and families. They are legitimately refugees.
“And then we need to address the civil society, rule of law, governance, corruption issues in these three countries that have made life so unbearable and so unsafe. And that’s why I say it’s so difficult. That’s a many years process. There are sovereignty issues, there’s a lot of history with the U.S. in these countries that’s not necessarily positive. So it’s going to take a lot of doing. But if we are so bold to think we can solve the impasse between Israel and Palestine, if we think we can build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which may or may not be the right thing for us to be involved in, certainly these countries in our own hemisphere whose citizens are literally knocking on our door right now, that deserves our attention. I think it’s going to be very difficult to do, but very doable once we decide we want to do it.”
Correction: The original version of this story stated that the HUMANE Act would “undo” the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act. It is more accurately described as rewriting that 2008 law. The story has been corrected.