Governor Rick Perry, R-Texas, wrote to President Barack Obama yesterday, declining an invitation to greet the president when Air Force One lands in Austin on Wednesday. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Perry’s letter to Obama said, “I appreciate the offer to greet you at Austin-Bergstrom Airport, but a quick handshake on the tarmac will not allow for a thoughtful discussion regarding the humanitarian and national security crises enveloping the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas.” The governor instead offered that, “with the appropriate notice,” he would be “willing to change [his] schedule” to make time for a “substantive meeting to discuss this critical issue” with the president, who will be in Texas for only two days.
Since receiving Perry’s letter, Obama added another item to his itinerary. Now, in addition to traveling back and forth between Austin and Dallas to speak at three Democratic Party fundraisers and a public event regarding the economy, the president plans to meet with Perry, other local officials, and faith leaders at a roundtable discussion about the border crisis.
At the heart of the crisis is the complex humanitarian and legal issue of appropriately and efficiently dealing with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who are apprehended by the United States Border Patrol each year. The numbers have been steadily increasing—from 13,625 in fiscal 2012 to 24,668 in fiscal 2013—to the astronomical prediction of 60,000 or more unaccompanied children, who may be caught attempting to cross the border in 2014.
These children come from all over the world, the majority arriving from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where spikes in violence and poverty have created situations so desperate that parents would rather their children risk the difficult and dangerous journey to the United States for the possibility of eventual safety than remain in places that offer no protection.
For most of these children, their journey ends back where it started; however, the process of getting them there is neither easy nor quick. A Bush-era law meant to combat the trafficking of minors requires that, unless the undocumented child is from Mexico or Canada, he or she must be taken into custody and granted due process of law (i.e., held in detention centers and put through deportation hearings conducted in a language and legal system that the child does not understand).
Due to the surge in the number of Central American children attempting to cross the border, the legal system no longer has the resources to process them all. Nearly 9,700 Central American children were taken into custody in the month of May 2014 alone. The Obama administration would like more flexibility under the law and has submitted a request for Congress to amend it, but until the legislative branch does its part, the White House must operate within the present legal framework.
Meanwhile, Perry has been more than just critical of Obama’s handling the immigration crisis; Perry has, in fact, been accusatory, going so far as to suggest on Fox News that the president might be "in on this somehow." When asked about that statement during ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Perry reiterated his belief that Obama must either be “inept” or hiding “some ulterior motive.” The Texas governor said of the president, “I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is secure.” The $3.7 billion emergency funding request the president sent to Congress today suggests otherwise.
The Obama administration plans to use this funding to bolster aerial surveillance, hire more border patrol agents and immigration judges, create new detention facilities and improve care for the children throughout the deportation process. Additionally, with this funding, the administration would like to move upstream of the problem and work with the immigrants’ home nations to combat the violence that is causing this crisis in the first place.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is scheduled to meet with Guatemalan officials later this week, told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that the administration is "looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular, consistent with our laws and our values."
The avenues that the administration has found were more explicitly explained to Perry in his invitation to Wednesday’s roundtable discussion. According to the Austin American-Statesman’s report, senior adviser to the president, Valerie Jarret, wrote to Perry, “As you know, the administration continues to address this urgent humanitarian situation with a whole-of-government response on both sides of the border. This includes appropriate care for unaccompanied children, as well as aggressive steps to surge resources to the Southwest border to deter both adults and children from embarking on this dangerous journey, increasing capacity for enforcement and removal proceedings, and quick return of recent unlawful border crossers to their home countries after appropriate humanitarian screenings have taken place and they are determined to be removable.”
She concluded her letter, saying, “The president hopes you will join him in urging Congress to quickly pass the emergency funding to deal with the current situation at the border.” Though a handshake on the tarmac was a bit too much to ask of the Texas governor, perhaps he will acquiesce to the president’s most recent request.