Sunday, 14 July 2024 19:14

Migrant drownings complicate immigration debate for presidential hopefuls

Monday, 06 April 2015

Millions of migrants have successfully crossed the Rio Grande to enter Texas from Mexico, but this year drownings are on the rise. After 16 deaths in six months, the U.S. Border Patrol has expanded search-and-rescue teams to monitor the area, especially weed-choked irrigation canals where many of the bodies are being found.

Illegal crossings have decreased since last summer’s surging numbers of Central American youth, in part because more law enforcement officials now scout the border to deter new waves of migrants.

But the current spike in drownings appears to stem from the tighter border security, which encourages immigrants to choose more remote places and make more dangerous crossings.

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The irrigation canals often span 50 feet, with quick currents, steep banks, and mats of hydrilla weed. Immigrants find themselves trapped in the matting or unable to climb up the steep brush-covered banks in their panic to avoid detection.

To mitigate the crisis, the Border Patrol moved eight members of an elite rescue unit from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley, reinforcing the total number of agents to 30. They have special training in swift-water rescues, emergency medicine, tracking, and diving. But experts say the extra resources will not help much, in part because drownings often happen too quickly for a rescue.

As 2016 presidential hopefuls begin their stumping, the backdrop of border woes means illegal immigration presents GOP contenders with a political Rio Grande to cross.

“All the candidates have mixed statements—they have statements that seem to support amnesty and they all have ones that seem to oppose it,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which seeks to reduce all immigration. “They’re torn between the big-money people who gain from high immigration and the voters who oppose it.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2013 said offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship “made sense.” But now he no longer supports “amnesty.” 

For many conservative voters, any plan that favors “legal status” is equal to allowing “amnesty”—a form of which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocates in his 2013 book Immigration Wars.

Luis Alvarado, a California-based GOP strategist, said most Republican officials admit privately a point will come when America must legalize the status of people who are here unlawfully, while maintaining the country also needs to bolster border security. “They believe that no one in their conscious mind can deport 11 million people from this country,” Alvarado said. “But, politically, they have to play word games to be elected in the primary.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at one time co-wrote a bill—backed by President Barack Obama—with a path to citizenship that passed the Senate but failed in the House. Now he claims the bill has too little support to become law, making border security the vital issue. In this he echoes the standard GOP position.Ultimately, Rubio wants to create a process that leads to legal status and then citizenship, but he said Obama has “undermined” immigration reform.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul voted against Rubio’s bill but acknowledged the impossibility of deporting untold millions of illegal immigrants. He supports immigration reform: “The status quo is untenable.” His most recent statement on border security advocates an underground electric fence and helicopter patrols but not amnesty in any form.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie previously voiced support for an immigration overhaul, but it’s not clear where he stands now. Like 24 other states, New Jersey is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Obama’s executive order to defer deportation of many immigrants, especially children.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called his 2012 campaign rivals heartless for opposing a law that would have allowed some children of immigrants in the U.S. illegally to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the first to make his presidential candidacy official, has spoken consistently on his state’s estimated 1.65 million illegal immigrants: He wants border reinforcement with no path to citizenship but broader police power to ask detainees about their status.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the federal government’s recent acts to shield certain immigrants from deportation have made it politically impossible for a Republican to embrace a pathway to citizenship, especially in light of the humanitarian disaster on the border last year.

But there is a current of support among candidates for an immigration overhaul with a legal path to citizenship, which fits into the strategy of some funders: Spencer Zwick, finance chairman for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, is one donor who has said he will only support candidates who promote such an overhaul.


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