Controversy over housing unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the United States is part of a broader national debate over immigration that is not only creating divisions between the two major political parties but sowing dissension from within.
In Dayton, which advertises itself as immigrant friendly, the issue flared over whether the city should host a temporary shelter for immigrant children from Central America, pitting the Democratic mayor and city commissioners and their allies against U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and several other GOP elected officials.
Similar standoffs have occurred elsewhere and are becoming more pitched as the economy continues to lag and the mid-term elections grow nearer and with control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, political experts say.
“The biggest thing that drives political issues is the proximity of an election,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “Since we have mid-term elections coming up in November, both sides are trying to figure out how they can capitalize on the issue politically.”
The divide on immigration is tinged with election-year fear — from both sides, said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.
“Democrats are afraid that this will energize the Republican base. And in a year like 2014 where you’re not going to have the kind of turnout that you’re going to have in a presidential year this worries a lot of Democrats,” Green said.
But the GOP also is split on the immigration issue, said Green, with many Republicans concerned a hard-line stance will alienate Hispanic voters. “Hispanics are registering to vote in larger numbers and there’s a real fear that if this isn’t a huge problem this year, it will certainly be a huge problem in the future,” he said.
Both Green and Smith said the divisions between and within the parties make solutions more complex, especially in a hyper-partisan environment where Congress seems unable to agree on much of anything. Green said political brinkmanship is at work and magnified by animosity between the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives and President Barack Obama.
“I think this is why we see this issue appear in places like Dayton and the Midwest with this intensity,” Green said.
The Senate last year — with the support of all Democrats and 14 Republicans — passed a bill that sought to improve border security and provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the country illegally. The House did not consider the bill, causing some liberal and Hispanic groups to call on Obama to dramatically reduce deportations and use executive orders to reform immigration.
But the “go-it-alone” approach too is controversial and not just with Republicans. Congressional Democrats on the ballot in November are likely eyeing immigration reform differently than their Democratic president, who at this point “is looking at it from the lens of his legacy,” said Smith.
Since Oct. 1, about 57,000 unaccompanied children illegally crossed the southwest border, fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. Some Democrats have criticized the administration’s handling of the border crisis, and Democratic senators in tough re-election fights, such as Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have warned the president against going too far using executive order to achieve his immigration reform goals, according to published reports.
Turner said one of the barriers to immigration reform is a lack of trust the administration will live up to its promises, making consensus in Congress difficult to achieve.
“If the president takes unilateral action, it will undermine any ability to have any negotiations with the administration,” he said.
Turner agreed that immigration is sowing discord on many levels, including within parties.“On the House floor, when we have discussions, this issue is not just a partisan divide,” he said. “It splits regions, it splits states and delegations. I think that’s another reason there’s not consensus.”
Dayton has received national publicity over its Welcome Dayton program, which trumpets opening the city’s arms to immigrants. But in recent weeks the headlines have been of a different sort as the city’s Democratic mayor, Nan Whaley, and Turner, traded shots over whether the city should house unaccompanied children while they await immigration court hearings.
Federal officials in early July contacted officials in Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and other cities to see if vacant sites were available for a federally-funded temporary shelter. Whaley and her commission colleagues — all Democrats — had city staff identify two possible sites. Federal officials had said all costs would be covered by the federal government, but last week the Obama administration decided against opening temporary shelters as the flow of children began to decline.
Turner and six area Republican elected officials — including Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, Greene County commissioners and two suburban mayors — signed a July 25 letter addressed to Obama that opposed setting up a shelter and said the community couldn’t afford to care for the children.
Plummer, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, said even if the feds covered the costs, the money still comes from taxpayers. And he said he feared the children would join gangs or get involved in the drug trade here.
“It’s not a decision the city of Dayton, one person, the mayor, should be making on her own,” said Ohio Rep. Mike Henne, R-Clayton, who didn’t sign the letter but stood with Turner and Plummer at a news conference afterward.
Whaley said city commissioners are elected to make decisions for the city and that the city was simply responding to a federal request. She and others too have argued there is a humanitarian obligation to help needy children.
“These are children and we are a caring community,” said Jan Lepore-Jentleson, executive director of East End Community Services. “The mayor is expressing what a lot of us are feeling.”
City Commissioner Matt Joseph said the children “got sent here from a terrible situation in Central America and we are arguing about whether we should provide them with basic means? I resist on moral grounds looking at this with political calculus.”
Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said Turner made the immigrant children issue a partisan one in an effort to appeal to a “narrow base” in an election year.
For his part Turner makes a distinction between welcoming legal immigrants and responding to illegal immigration. A former two-term mayor of Dayton, he called the city of Dayton’s “Welcome Dayton” initiative to embrace legal immigrants “great.”
“It certainly gives a message of embracing both diversity and celebrating the different cultures that we have in the community,” he said. “But it should not be confused with the issue of illegal immigration. I think everyone wants the laws to be enforced even at the same time that they want to celebrate that we are an immigrant country.”
Turner’s opponent in the November election, Rob Klepinger of Dayton, said Congress needs to approve funding to cope with the influx of children and “support the president.”
Second most important problem
The border crisis is shuffling public opinion. Immigration is now viewed as the second most important problem in the U.S., behind dissatisfaction with government, a Gallup poll released Wednesday shows. Even the economy ranked a notch below immigration in the rank of problems facing the country.
State Rep. Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, points a finger at Congress and says more should be done.
“I would say personally, like many Americans, I think our immigration system is broken and in need of very thoughtful, not even repair but overhaul,” said McGregor, who has served in the Ohio House since 2005. “I think many Americans would like to see Congress, which is the legitimate overseer of immigration issues, be able to tackle that and produce something that will make sure that our borders are protected and strengthened and that legal immigration can continue to occur without undue hassle.”
McGregor, whose family owns the manufacturing firm Pentaflex Inc., said as a business owner he supports “common sense immigration reform.” But he also takes a different view than some others in his party when it comes to sheltering immigrant children who are here illegally.
Once children cross over the border, he said, “we need to extend to them the most common human decency. I think it is really hard to be a bully against a kid that really doesn’t have much in life.”
Smith said the immigration issue splits the GOP between its “pro-business, free enterprise wing” and the “law and order/national security” side that emphasizes national sovereignty and border control. The tea party wing opposes increased government spending and thwarts more spending on immigration issues, he said.
He expects immigration — particularly on the southern border — to continue as a political wedge.
“Culturally European immigrants are much closer to British American culture as we’ve existed, whereas South American, Central American immigrants probably bring in a very different culture and for some people I think that’s a threat,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be, but I think for some people it is.”
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