Harry Reid’s border problem

Immigration crisis requires action from reluctant Senate leader

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a Democratic luncheon last week.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a Democratic luncheon last week.

Harry Reid has a border problem. More accurately, America has a border problem that Reid, as Senate majority leader, will need to help solve in the next three weeks. The Nevada senator’s difficulties stem from his dislike of the bipartisan solution recently offered, disagreement with the approach suggested by President Obama, and disdain for anything passed by the House of Representatives. Other than that, Reid should find the sweltering run-up to the August recess to be great fun.

It’s difficult to overstate the challenges created by the massive influx of asylum seekers — mostly women and unaccompanied children — currently flowing through our southern border. The situation puts the health and safety of thousands at risk, places enormous economic and social pressure on border communities, and portrays America as powerless to control its own borders. In large measure, however, it is a crisis of the administration’s own making.

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In June 2012, Obama ordered Homeland Security to stop deporting young illegal immigrants eligible for education benefits under the DREAM Act, a bill introduced in Congress but never passed. With the presidential campaign in full swing, the gambit was designed to solidify the Hispanic vote in his favor. It may or may not have helped win the election, but it sowed the seeds for today’s border meltdown.


Whether intended or not, the signal was sent that America would be lax in enforcing immigration laws — in particular, that we would no longer deport minors. In the past nine months, over 50,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the southern border, double the numbers from just a year earlier. Current projections now anticipate that unaccompanied children apprehended at the border through September could reach 90,000.

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Even the president recognizes a disaster when he sees one. As border-state governors like Texas’ Rick Perry called attention to the crisis, stories mounted of deplorable living conditions inside temporary detention facilities. The White House finally responded with an emergency request of $3.7 billion for additional border personnel, facilities, and officials to help review cases.

Discuss: What should be done about the immigration crisis?

Naturally, Obama tried to throw some of the blame onto George W. Bush. Citing a 2008 law designed to prevent human trafficking, the president argued that rules requiring court hearings for minors coming from countries other than Mexico, such as Honduras and Guatemala, were preventing him from taking faster action. The White House called for changes to that law to allow for faster reviews and deportations. In response, a bipartisan bill introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, would change the law to address those concerns and would provide additional resources for border enforcement and immigration hearings.

This is where Reid’s problems begin. He likes the law the way it is, and views the crisis quite differently than most of his colleagues. In an interview last week, he stated unequivocally, “The border is secure.” He’s happy to give Obama more money, but refuses to acknowledge that any policies need to be changed to deal more effectively with the massive migrant flow.

Not long ago, the Senate would have taken the legislative lead on an issue of such importance. A reasonable bipartisan bill like Cornyn-Cuellar would be brought to the Senate floor, debated, and amended at length. The chamber would be allowed to work its will, and the finished product would be sent to the House. (A filibuster would be highly unlikely; every Democrat in a competitive election would vote for a bill to resolve the crisis.)

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Instead, the House will probably act first and, interestingly, produce much the same result. Funding will be less than Obama requested, and the policy changes might be more aggressive than the White House originally envisioned. The vote, however, will be telling. Expect plenty of rhetoric on both sides, but in the midst of campaign season, with this story at center stage, support could be big and bipartisan, raising the pressure on the Senate to act.

Up against the August recess, the spotlight then falls on Reid. Instinct will tell him to take the House bill, make big changes, and send it back at the last minute — “jamming” the House in the rush to get out of town. Politically, however, he holds few cards. House members will already have taken a vote on which they can campaign, Senate Republicans will rally behind Cornyn’s work, and vulnerable Democrats in states like Arkansas and Louisiana will be desperate to get the crisis off the table.

In Nevada, of all places, you should know when to fold a weak hand.

Previous coverage:

Discuss: The immigration crisis

Yvonne Abraham: A child’s harrowing journey to the US


Migrant children traveling alone strain makeshift Ariz. shelter

Obama vows aid to migrant children

Some children with claims of abuse overlooked at border

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.