Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

How Much Of The Immigration Process Can Obama Change By Executive Action?

How Much Of The Immigration Process Can Obama Change By Executive Action?
How Much Of The Immigration Process Can Obama Change By Executive Action?
Obama Says He Will Use Executive Action To Address Immigration System GUEST:Everard Meade, PhD is director of the Trans-Border Institute at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, what President Obama can do about the increase of unencumbered the children crossing the border both in Texas and here in San Diego. On Monday, Obama declared that the leadership in Congress walked away from its responsibility to address immigration reform, and he intended to step in. The president said he intends to use his executive authority to transfer immigration resources to the border, and to perhaps expedite deportation of new arrivals. As Obama examines his options in the use of executive authority, the question on how to house and maintain the influx of immigrant children remains. I would like to welcome my guest, Ev Meade, Director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego. EV MEADE: Thank you very much for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: First, let's define the problem happening at the border. The number of unaccompanied children, and women with children being detained after crossing the border has increased. Is that only happening at the Texas border? EV MEADE: Yes, it is having to a degree in Arizona as well, but it's primarily a problem in Texas. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border at the San Diego Mexico border has increased, isn't that right? EV MEADE: It has increased, but the overall number is still in the 600s. In Texas, for example it is 33,000 this year, and they may have even revised that hire. There is a big difference what is happening in the Rio Grande and what is happening here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're hearing that many of these children are coming from Central America. Isn't the US trying to get Central American nations to stop this migration? EV MEADE: They are, but the exact methods of that we are not really sure of. They are talking to the central American governments, which for their part have tried to downplay the violence which many of the folks are alleging, but they also have a dog in that fight. It makes them kind of look bad, to show that their country is rife with corruption and there are large zones of impunity. They can't really control their border. Whether they are really good partners or not is an open question. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Didn't Vice President Biden just make a trip to South America with an aid package to encourage Central American nations to do something about this? EV MEADE: Definitely, and there are parts of that which address underlying conditions, there are talks about strengthening ways and girls clubs, doing something for youth in the area, but it sound small. It sounds like most of what they are going to do is to beef up security forces in Central America. The problem is, those security forces are deeply compromised, that is the most polite way I can put it. They have terrible human rights efforts. They are often overlaps with drug trafficking organizations. It is not a new thing to talk about closing the borders. The US is been talking with Mexico about closing the southern border since the middle of the Cold War. This is something that happens periodically. Route the 2000s, had a bunch of joint operations with Central American countries to deal with human trafficking, to deal with people crossing borders, and they did not really work. They were a mixed success at best, and there was a huge investment in the communitarian costs of those were really high as well. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us what we know about the kinds of conditions that the kids were making this track from Central America through Mexico into the United States, what kinds of conditions are they leaving? EV MEADE: It is really a mixed bag, that is part of what makes it difficult to talk about, because they vary by country. The general conditions is that there is a pervasive violence in all three countries. If you look at homicide rates in these countries, it is staggering. Throughout the drug war in Mexico, with all of its beheadings, the horrific violence, seeing people being killed in YouTube videos. The murder rate in Honduras was almost 4 times that of Mexico for the entirety of the drug war. It became kind of the murder capital of the world. There is a gang problem in Honduras, it is not safe on the streets at night, small businesses have to pay a huge quota. This is true in El Salvador as well. Street gangs are a huge problem in urban and Central America, but there are other population sending a lot of kids here as well, for example, a lot of indigenous people, there is a question more of abysmal poverty, land tenure, in some cases it goes back 100 years. It is a big make Scott not just one big thing. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The president said that he has been told by the House majority leader that no vote will take on immigration reform in the near future this year. That reform package has already been passed in the Senate. Even though the president says that he will use his executive authority, immigration law remains the same. Isn't that right? EV MEADE: That is right. The thing about immigration law, it is highly discretionary. If you compare it to civil criminal law, there are a lot of things that can happen there. For example, the president can divert a lot of resources. He can send immigration judges, they can send more border patrol from other places in the United States to the border. He can partner with other federal law enforcement. He has broad discretion in terms of moving particular cases to the front so you can skip the immigration backlog if you want to. He has executive authority over who is detained and who is released in particular populations. Most important thing, the president has prosecutorial discretion, this is passed on from the Attorney General all the way on down to immigration judges. But they can decide that for people whom they have no real intention of deporting or removing, they can simply decide to not pursue removal cases against them because it would be a huge waste of resources. There is a lot of discretion there. There is a model out there that the White House put out that they will train some people right out of law school, but that will take months and months if not a year to implement. They could do what other public defender offices do, in any locality, and hire outside of counsel. They can get experience immigration lawyers and do that. They can also do introduction air efforts in Central America which it sounds like they are planning to do. Again, there is a sketchy record to whether those work or not. They have a lot of options, they just have not told the public which options they will exercise. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Within the current immigration law, what is built into that law is a whole number of levels of discretion when it comes to how that law is enforced? EV MEADE: Sure. In your average criminal jurisdiction you cannot just jump to the head, you cannot take a criminal court judge from one jurisdiction and just move them to the other. You can in immigration. You're right in the sense that there are pieces of this you cannot change. He cannot change what asylum means, he cannot change what a juvenile visa means, he cannot change the procedures used for unaccompanied immigrant children with regard to the fact that they are handed over to the office of refugee resettlement and screened for signs of persecution and traffic, abuse, neglect, abandonment. He cannot change the substance of that, but he can do a lot of things to speed up the process. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When it comes to using the president's executive authority, critics will say that the main reason for this influx of children crossing the border is because the president's previous executive order on do for deferred give rotations of people who came here as children has actually spurred children in Central America to cross Mexico, cross the border illegally thinking that they will be able to stay even though that impression is mistaken. Isn't that the kind of blowback that the president invites when he goes alone on these issues? EV MEADE: That is a good question and I think it is a reasonable thing for people to be asking about, I can tell you if you talk to immigration lawyers who are interviewing a lot of these kids they are finding that when I talk to them and it particularly in it initial screenings, they will say sure, I heard from the smuggler, I heard it in my town if I get the United States I will not be deported and I will probably be reunified with family members there. That is true competence important for us to separate why it is they feel they will have safety and security and coming to the United States right now. We need to separate that from initial decisions to leave the home community. That necessarily the home country, but the home community. That is really important because one of the important things that we hear from service providers and researchers in Central America, even from government commissions and Central America, for every one of these kids that hits the United States there have been a handful of kids who fled their home or home community have gone somewhere else. Either to the city, another country in Central America, or a lot of them to Mexico, but a lot of them without any intention of going to the United States. That tells them that this is really about the conditions in those home communities. Part of the proof of this is also the fact that these kids are coming overwhelmingly, from only three countries. We have neighboring countries like Nicaragua, who have a huge tradition of migration, they are very dependent on in remittances. There are not a lot of kids from Nicaragua showing up here. Much less kids coming from Haiti or the Dominican Republic, Cuba or somewhere else. It is not like all of the poor children in the world have got this message, that they are going to get the free pass in the United States. It is also important to note that the information they have got is not super specific, it is this idea that they are not going to deport you immediately, they are not going to shove you across the border and put you on a plane and deport you. They do not understand the nuances of immigration law at all. In fact many of these kids are put in removal proceedings, that is something whether they get to stay for a long time or and up being removed, it will deal with this for the rest of their adult lives. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The president says he intends to shift immigration resources to the border, to understand what that means? EV MEADE: In general terms yes, I have heard for example that some of the immigration judges in Colorado have been given marching orders, and they will be sent down, and they will expedite the hearing process for those apprehended on the border. Border patrol is already talking about this, moving away from some of the interior enforcement stuff and they will put more resources on the border. If it is that simple, we understand it. There are some broader things that the president can do, he just has not made it clear. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Expedited deportation of new border crossers is one of the options on the table apparently, what does that mean we're talking about kids? EV MEADE: We don't really know, it is a big problem, three radically if they push them to the front they could speed up the process of that they get a hearing in front of a judge and a judge makes an up or down decision. If there are serious humanitarian concerns about sending the children back, they probably will not be deported quickly. With some of the families and adults it may be possible, but the biggest thing that we're getting from this is that the president's saying that he is doing this in support of immigration reform and in the same breath that he talked about this deterrence and being tough on the border and turning people away, he said that he was tired of all of the suffering that the separation of families from mass deportations have caused. It is a mixed message, we're not sure what he is doing here, this really about increasing enforcement, or is this about immigration reform? It seems like he is pushing both at once. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When it comes to expedited deportation, isn't that what happens to a lot of Mexican children who cross the border here in San Diego? They are basically turned around and sent out to Mexico pretty fast. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, but is only for them, because they are contiguous country. That is a big issue, we should be talking about whether we are screening them properly, because there are kids fleeing conditions that are similar to Central America in some regions of Mexico. Yeah, they are eligible for a form of immigration law called voluntary departure. They are not eligible for expedited removal, which you make your of, because they are not the age of majority, so they cannot sign away their rights in a legal document. Voluntary departure is nonpunitive, it does not create a same record in the same way of removal. It is more or less immediate. If you talk to people at ports of entry they would tell you it is something that they do on a daily basis. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some immigrant advocates say that they think that how the president is handling this, you talked about the kind of mixed message that he is sending, that he will aim for quick deportations to deter more new arrivals of unaccompanied children and women with children, and at the same time with executive authority, expand the deferred deportation order, for more people living here without papers. Do you think that would be a workable option? EV MEADE: I would have to see at first, that is part of it, because the devil would be in the details with the existing deferred action program, it is for people who enter the United States before 2007. There is a huge time window there. I'm not really sure, I think there is a misapprehension, a misunderstanding of the issue that is built into pursuing it that way, that is that these kids are coming because of immigration policy which we have kind of talked about, but importantly, it is because most of them are trying to reunify with families, where they have some family member, that is a big part of what they are doing. Maybe they are too desperate to make that kind of rational decision. When you are risking rape, kidnap, murder, in this crossing, it is not a simple matter of push and pull factors in these two countries, but on the other hand, they do perceive a safe option in the US. It is not necessarily about immigration policy, it is about getting back with their people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: While the president is deciding what kind of options he will pursue on this, we have as a nation this responsibility to care for the unaccompanied immigrant children and women with children who have come here illegally. We're hearing today that a number of people are being flown to Murietta through San Diego. There will be protesters there, there was a protest to the idea of Escondido housing unaccompanied immigrant children, and they voted that idea down largely because of safety concerns and a protest of immigrant policy in the United States. What do you think about all of that? EV MEADE: It is tough to deal with because it seems unprincipled, it seems out of control, but on the other hand I also see a number on this amount of preconception and prejudice, people just acting on base emotions. There are just a couple of things I would say on that. First, the major fears I've heard people articulate, the fear of infectious disease. I called the Center for Disease Control, Health and Human Services, talk to people at shelters along the border, it is just a red herring. It doesn't exist. It is not a real fear. The second about criminality, part of that is something that comes from the claims the kids have made about what they are actually fleeing. This is not a whole bunch of organized criminals or gang members coming to prey upon the United States, it is just not true. The other thing is just about what is really going on here and how new it is, the federal government moves people around all of the time, you have 35,000 detention beds separate from the children's question. We detain over 400,000 people a year and all over the country. The government moves people around all of the time, these people are very carefully screened. They will fly into San Diego and be bussed up to Murietta. At Murietta, at the border patrol station they will submit fingerprints and go through a version of a federal background check. There will also be interviewed to see if they are afraid to return to their home country. They also will have all of their documents with them carefully screened. If the border control think that they have committed a federal crime, they can refer them to ICE if it is an immigration crime, or to the US attorney for prosecution. People are not being set free, and if they decide to release them, and they send them to one of these bus stations that we have heard about, and they're going to meet a family sponsor, most of the adults will have an ankle brace on. They will have to report to an ICE officer in the town and address that they sponsor. It is more or less like parole. This is not a lot of people unleashed on our community. I think the last thing I would say is at a broader level. We have to ask ourselves why we are believing these wilder rumors about this. Why we're perceiving such a threat from a bunch of kids, some of them traveling with moms and some not. What does it say about us that we are so afraid of that, and it makes us to peel back the issue a little bit and think about what we are really afraid of year. From my perspective, I do not think it is anything that has to do with the substance of these kids claims, is a bigger side of political and cultural issues that we should not lump on them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I will have to leave it there. Thank you very much. EV MEADE: Thank you very much, Maureen.

On Monday, President Obama declared that the leadership in Congress had walked away from its responsibility to address immigration reform, and he intended to step in.

As NPR reports:

Obama announced one piece of concrete action — that he would move some immigration enforcement assets from the interior of the country to the border. He said his Cabinet will meet and by the end of the summer, it will bring him recommendations for executive actions.

As President Obama examines his options in the use of executive authority the question of how to house and maintain the influx of immigrant children remains.


KPBS contacted San Diego's Congressional representatives for reaction to the announcement.

  • Congresswoman Susan Davis who represents the 53rd district said in a statement, "Immigration reform is an economic imperative as it will grow our economy and create jobs. I believe the votes are there if the Majority would simply allow a vote in the House. The American people support reform and have been waiting for Congress to act. The President understands that doing nothing is not an option."
  • In a statement, Congressman Scott Peters, who represents the 52nd district said, “Immigration reform would create jobs here in America and reduce our deficit, which is why it’s supported by business, labor, faith, and farmers alike. While the Senate passed a bipartisan proposal last year, Speaker Boehner has refused to allow a vote in the House – even though the bipartisan effort I support would pass. While a comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system will require Congressional action, I share the President’s frustration with the Republican majority in the House who have prevented any action and then expect him to stand back and do nothing.”
  • Congressman Juan Vargas, represents the 51st district. In a statement he said, “I urge the President to take executive action on immigration reform, in response to Republican leadership’s choice to prohibit the House from voting on reform during the remainder of this session. Our President must take action to keep our families together and encourage economic growth that will keep our businesses thriving. An overwhelming coalition of religious, community and business leaders all agree that our nation can’t wait any longer to fix this broken system. While we know that the only way to institute long-term reform is through Congress, the President’s effort is a step in the right direction.”

Representatives Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa have not responded to requests for comment.