WASHINGTON - Thousands of unaccompanied minors are being dragged into the United States' dysfunctional governance, sudden poster children for a political age of paralysis and finger-pointing.
There could hardly be a more dramatic snapshot to illustrate American politics in 2014 than the humanitarian crisis now unfolding at the border.
The familiar sequence of events goes something like this: A major reform is stalled in Congress. The parties blame each other. Then there's a headline-grabbing crisis, and a proposed short-term fix. Then, more paralysis and blame. Finally, President Barack Obama muses about taking unilateral action, without Congress.
In this case, the crisis involves children arriving in buses from violence-plagued countries in Central America, and being forced to sleep under aluminum sheets in caged federal detention areas.
It could also apply, to varying degrees, to the debt ceiling, climate change, labour-market reforms and adjustments to Obamacare.
The result of these unilateral presidential actions is a lawsuit from Republicans, and even calls for Obama's impeachment from Sarah Palin-type critics who liken his executive orders to extra-constitutional tyranny.
The immigration imbroglio begins with a major reform anticipated after the 2012 election. The omnibus legislation now appears irreversibly stalled. It would have provided amnesty to illegal immigrants while doubling the number of border guards, extended an existing fence, and added high-tech surveillance through drones and helicopters.
It passed the Democratic-controlled Senate, and apparently had enough votes to pass the House too — but it was never brought to the floor by the Republican leadership, which lives in constant fear of a conservative revolt. Democrats, however, wouldn't remove the amnesty part of the bill that was the main source of Republican opposition.
So add immigration reform to the pile of dead initiatives in this, the least productive U.S. Congress in memory. It's passed 125 bills, less than half of what its predecessors a few years ago had at a similar stage and nearly three-quarters less than congresses of the 1970s.
Republicans now blame Obama for this influx of minors. They say his talk of amnesty gave false hope to families in struggling countries, prompting them to send off their children in pursuit of American citizenship.
"We've got a true humanitarian crisis underway, with children caught in the middle," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday. "Unfortunately, it's a crisis of the president's own making. His actions gave false hope to children and their families if they enter the country illegally, they would be allowed to stay."
He said the priority was to return the children home, safely, and to send in the National Guard.
Sending the children back has legislative obstacles, however.
A 2008 human-trafficking bill requires that every minor entering the country be granted an immigration hearing. Non-English-speaking children are now showing up in immigration courts without any legal representation, prompting a class-action suit against the government.
Obama wants the issue dealt with through a US$3.7 billion emergency bill. His opponents, however, scoff at the fact that only half this sum deals with protecting the border — while the rest is for humanitarian things, like the children's safe repatriation and aid for their home countries.
Boehner said the president wasn't going to get everything he wanted in an emergency bill: "We're not giving the president a blank cheque," the Republican leader said.
Unlike some members of his party, though, Boehner in that same news conference made it clear that he has no intention of impeaching the president.
He just wants to sue him over all his executive actions.
Obama's critics aren't assuaged by the statistical evidence that he has issued far fewer presidential orders than virtually all his 20th and 21st century predecessors. Nor are they assuaged by the pile of court decisions throughout U.S. history that support a president's right to issue those orders, provided they don't contradict the Constitution or a law passed by Congress.
They say the problem is the nature of Obama's orders, not the number. Like the after-the-fact fixes to deadlines and details of Obama's signature health bill, without it being taken it back before Congress.
For its part, the White House appeared quite proud Thursday of all its unilateral actions this year.
It held a self-congratulatory conference call to list all the measures it had taken in 2014, including a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors, a carbon-emissions plan, and family-leave provisions.
The unilateral scenario could play out again, with the border.
Obama couldn't resist a dig at Republicans during his trip to Texas this week. He brushed off their demands that he head to the crisis area, and opted instead to hold meetings and partisan fundraisers at a distance.
While describing his meeting with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he referred to the Washington deadlock.
"You know, he suggested, 'Well, maybe you just need to go ahead and act and that might convince Republicans that they should go ahead and pass the supplemental ($3.7 billion emergency bill in Congress),'" Obama said.
"And I had to remind him I'm getting sued right now by Mr. Boehner, apparently, for going ahead and acting instead of going through Congress. Well, here's a good test case. This is something you say is important, as I do... Don't wait for me to take executive actions when you have the capacity right now to go ahead and get something done. I will sign that bill tomorrow."
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