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US immigration debate has become a crisis

31 July 20140 comments
migrant children

(Eric Gay/Associated Press)

The long running debate over immigration and the large number of illegal migrants living in the US is now being called “a crisis”.

A massive influx of would-be immigrants crossing the US south-western border – many having travelled through Mexico from Central America began – in 2011 when 4000 unaccompanied children arrived.

This year 47,000 are expected.

Many have left Guatemala and Honduras, where gang-based violence has become endemic.

The debate over what caused the crisis and what to do about it has fallen largely along party lines. And the milieu around the arguments resonates with Australia’s own national discussion on immigration and asylum seekers.

All this is happening in the wake of President Obama’s stalled attempt to deliver on an election promise to set up ways to allow ‘illegal aliens’ to become legal and make the immigration process more orderly.

Some republicans blame the Democrats, who as part of President Obama’s intended reforms, called for an amnesty for children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the US.

Others blame a 2008 law that regards children who arrive without documents more leniently than adults and allows many to be released into the care of relatives already in the US.

For his part, President Obama has blamed Republicans in the House of Representatives for refusing to pass an immigration reform bill, already signed off by the Senate. The bill would see $2 billion in spending to increase resources on the border with Mexico, open more detention centres, hire more immigration judges and speed up the deportation process.

Adding to the tensions and uncertainty around the issue was a recent comment from Hilary Clinton, who is expected to run for the White House in 2016, who told CNN: “We have to send a clear message; just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay”.

The US Government has also met with the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico to try to deliver a similar message that it is a misconception that unaccompanied children who make it to the border will have immunity from deportation in the long run.

In another comment which resonates with Australia’s asylum seeker issue, Arizona Senator John McCain said: “The only way this is going to stop is if plane loads of children arrive back in the countries in Central America they came from and the parents see the five of six thousand dollars they have paid to the human traffickers is wasted”.

With federal immigration bills stalled in Washington, many states are charging ahead on their own to open doors to unauthorised immigrants, from allowing them to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, to giving them driver’s licenses and providing them with welfare or Medicaid benefits.

Sixteen states now offer in-state tuition rates to students who are in the country illegally and at least four other states seem to be moving in that direction.

Unauthorised immigrants can now get driver’s licenses in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Just five years ago, no state issued the licenses.

But in Arizona, new laws allow local police to check the status of people suspected of being in the country illegally. And the Republican Governor of Texas Rick Perry has ordered the National Guard to the border.

The latest polls say most Americans want to speed up their deportations and disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the situation.

Only 28 per cent of those surveyed approve of Obama’s response to the surge of children along the border, while twice as many (56 per cent) say they disapprove of his efforts, according to the poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Centre.

“That is one of the lowest ratings for his handling of any issue since he became president,” the report said.

But Republicans don’t get off the hook in the report’s finding either. More respondents said Republicans need to do a better job on immigration (42 per cent) than those who said Democrats need to do better (40 per cent).

A 53 per cent majority of those surveyed said the United States should speed up the deportation process for these child arrivals, even if it meant that some who are eligible for asylum end up getting deported.

More Republicans favor that option — 60 per cent. Democrats are divided on the issue. Forty-seven per cent say they’d rather keep the policy of a slower deportation process, while 46 per cent support faster deportation.