The Cost of Compassion

Everyone agrees that there is a humanitarian crisis on the Texas border with Mexico, in the form of a sudden surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America seeking haven from desperate poverty and violence in their home countries.

But that is where agreement ends. Already begun is the squabbling over who is to blame, and what is to be done. In that order.

Republicans are accusing President Barack Obama of lack of leadership. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) charged the administration knew about the problem “for some time,” and said the president should have been working with Central American governments to stem the flow before it became a surge.

Republicans got rhetorical assistance from Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who suggested that Obama’s reluctance to visit Texas could turn into his “Hurricane Katrina,” the disastrous non-response of the George W. Bush administration to that disaster.

Washington can be faulted for failing to see this coming, but the accusations seem somewhat overdrawn and simplistic.

To begin with, there is no consensus on the cause of the problem.

The number of unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala presenting themselves on the U.S. border began to rise in 2012, and has accelerated since. More than 50,000 illegal-immigrant children have crossed since last October, mostly from those countries. The projection of apprehensions during this year, at the current rate, would mark a 1,381 percent increase since 2011.

At a hearing in June, Democratic Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) pointed to “sky high” violence in those countries. “Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world … El Salvador and Guatemala are close behind at fourth and fifth,” he said.

But conditions were not much better for years before this immigration surge, and so would not suffice to explain it.

The Obama administration has not been oblivious to the situation. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted that senior administration officials from the department of Homeland Security (HHS) and the White House have traveled in the last several weeks to the Southwest border to see things for themselves and report back.

But official inspections and reports did not add up to timely intervention as the problem grew into a crisis over the past year. Dithering was made to look like high-level action.

As for allegations of not being tough enough in enforcing immigration law, administration officials explain that the law itself calls for compassionate treatment of unaccompanied children caught in the border area. The law requires that they be held in the least-restrictive custody setting while their deportations are being processed. What that means in practice is that most of them are placed with family members in the U.S. for the duration. And the duration can be almost two years, due to case overloads in the immigration courts.

That law was passed with support from both Republicans and Democrats six years ago and signed by former President Bush. The intention was to protect vulnerable young people from being inadvertently sent home into forced labor or other cruel exploitation by criminal elements.

But compassion costs money. Detention, restrictive or otherwise, costs money. Health and family services cost money. Courts and judges cost money. The framers of the 2008 law did not provide enough of it to implement the law in an efficient manner. If there are not enough judges, you have to wait.

In the meantime, word got back to those Central American countries that if the kids can just make it to the Rio Grande, Uncle Sam will take them in for free and forever. It was not true, but desperate people were eager to believe it. Criminal gangs facilitated their trek north — for a fee, of course.

Apparently, no one foresaw such an outcome. Perhaps no one could. Thus, the road to this humanitarian crisis was paved with bipartisan good intentions.

Hence, the administration’s proposed solution: more money. Obama has submitted a total funding request of $4.3 billion. The amount covers stepped-up border patrols, proper custody for minors in detention, the hiring of more judges to expedite the deportation process, and more.

“More” includes a $615 million allocation to help fight summer wildfires that have been raging in western states — an inducement for legislators from the region to vote in favor of the budget request. Pragmatism, it seems, makes compassion possible.

Whether the expanded budget will get enough support for passage from fiscally conscious conservatives on the one hand, and Latino politicians averse to any tightening of immigration laws, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

As always, we are wary of merely throwing money at problems. But given the known facts, here it seems to make sense.

The administration could not have foreseen the crisis, but it could have acted faster once the crisis began to develop. Now that it is acting, it deserves the support of Congress.

Bipartisan good intentions have to be followed up with bipartisan spending.