STEPPING INTO THE UNKNOWN - The Central American Immigrant Crisis

The Central American crisis is another spanner in the works for the 11m illegal immigrants in the US, including some 55,000 of whom are Irish, hoping for a path to citizenship.

THOUSANDS of Central American children, fleeing to the US for sanctuary, are presenting President Barack Obama with a growing crisis that is also dampening any lingering hopes of an immigration reform deal this year that would benefit Irish illegals.

It has been a rollercoaster year for the 11m illegal immigrants in the US, some 55,000 of whom are Irish. Hopes had been high that the Republican-led House of Representatives would match an historic senate deal a year ago that offered illegals a path to citizenship. That hasn’t happened and now the Central American crisis is another spanner in the works.

“I believe the chance of legislation was already zero before the recent influx [of Central American children]. There’s zero chance of one now,” said immigration expert and former Connecticut congressman Bruce Morrison, who secured the so-called ‘Morrison visas’ for thousands of Irish in the 1990s.

If nothing happens in the tight window before the summer recess next month and a brief return before November’s midterm elections, the senate bill will die with the outgoing congress. If Republicans, who oppose comprehensive reform, win both houses, which could well happen, immigration will likely be well off their radar and any deal could be years away.

“The CIR [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] framework is very unlikely to move again soon, if ever,” said Mr Morrison.

“If Republicans win the senate, they may try some things but not things Democrats will support.

“If Democrats hold the senate, they will be unlikely to give the Republicans a chance for a boost with Latinos before the 2016 presidential election. In short, legislation is a long way off, probably 2017 to 2018. Maybe there will be a changed environment and approach in 2015 to 2016, but it is unlikely.”

New York lawyer Brian O’Dwyer is also cautious. “I think it will break somewhere in September,” he said. “There’s an August recess and then there’s a short period of about a month from September to October when they come back into session before the October recess when they then go back to campaign for the November election.

“The thinking is that there will be some pressure on the Republican leadership during that window from the Hispanics and Irish Americans to get a bill passed. We don’t know if that will happen for certain but it is a window.”

Reform was also dealt a setback last month when house majority leader Eric Cantor lost a Republican primary election to a Tea Party challenger who ran on an anti-immigration platform

A leading Republican who does back reform is Senator John McCain. He is acutely aware that Obama swept to power with 70% of the Latino vote and he said recently the Republican Party must help pass immigration reform if it hopes to compete for the White House in 2016.

Complicating matters further is the crisis over the Central American issue. More than 57,000 children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have crossed the Mexican border without their parents over the last nine months.

This is double the number from the same period the year before and the numbers are continuing to grow. The Obama administration projects that more than 150,000 unaccompanied children could flee next year.

The children are motivated by a mixture of economic deprivation and fears of drug violence in their countries. “Salvadoran and Honduran children come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling alone to the US is preferable to remaining at home,” according to the US Customs and Border Protection agency.

In the blame game for the crisis, Republicans are pointing the finger at Obama, saying his 2012 promise not to deport young adults brought to the country illegally as children has led more families to hope for similar treatment. However, Republicans in congress are balking at meeting his request for almost $4bn (€2.9bn) to help deal with the crisis.

The White House said the largest portion of the requested funding, $1.8bn, would pay to care for the children while in custody. Other funds would go to beefing up border enforcement, hiring more immigration judges and paying for programmes to discourage deported children from again trying to slip into the US illegally.

US policy allows Mexican child migrants to be sent back quickly across the border but, under a 2008 law meant to combat child trafficking, children from Central America must be given a court hearing before they are deported or allowed to stay. Given the huge backlog of cases, they may have to wait years for such a hearing.

Obama has indicated that he wants congress to amend the 2008 law to make it easier to repatriate the children more quickly. However, by moving too swiftly to return them, he risks angering Hispanic-American supporters who want him to liberalise, not tighten, immigration rules and to do so, if necessary, by using his executive powers.

Indeed, last week, the administration seemed to soften its stance after Maryland governor Martin O’Malley condemned calls to send back the minors. The White House said that the children would not be deported if it is determined by an immigration judge that doing so would lead to their death.

THE US Conference of Catholic Bishops and some immigrant-support groups want the children to be treated as refugees who are fleeing violent criminals in their home countries, a view supported this month by the UN high commissioner for refugees.

So in a year that started out with the promise of immigration reform after the historic senate deal, little progress has been made and instead the political climate around the issue is deteriorating.

Yet the crisis over the Central American children has at least catapulted the immigration issues back on the agenda as the midterm elections close in and how the debate now plays out will have a significant impact on the future of reform.

In remarks on the issue as he bowed out as Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore said he believed it was “far more a case now of when, rather than if, there will be immigration legislation in the US”. He added that there was a “further sharpening of political engagement on the issue” because of the unaccompanied Central American children. “This may now impact negatively on the prospects for wider immigration reform progress being achieved over the immediate period ahead,” he said.

However, there was one glimmer of hope in the last number of days with news that the popular J1 12-month work experience programme for Irish graduates, which had been due to expire this October, has been extended until 2016.

Three of the world’s richest men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Sheldon Adelson — have also joined forces to urge the House of Representative to act on reform and said they would be able to draft a bill acceptable to each of them.

Gates and recent VHI investor Buffett have both supported Obama, while Las Vegas Sands Corporation chief executive Adelson is reported to have spent nearly $100m in a 2012 effort to try to defeat Obama’s re-election.

“The current stalemate — in which greater pride is attached to thwarting the opposition than to advancing the nation’s interests — is depressing to most Americans and virtually all of its business managers. The impasse certainly depresses the three of us,” they wrote in the New York Times on July 10. And it certainly depresses Irish illegals. But less depressing is the economic argument, which clearly favours reform.

According to the US Congressional Budget Office, comprehensive immigration reform would decrease the federal deficit by almost $1tn and increase tax revenue to US states by almost $750bn over the next 20 years. Those are the kind of hard cash figures that politicians ignore at their peril and ultimately they may win the day for reformers.


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