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"The Sunday Political Brunch" - ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis

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“The Sunday Political Brunch” -- July 13, 2014

(Providence, Rhode Island) – The big news in politics this week is the immigration crisis at the border, with thousand of kids in Mexico and Central America being dropped off there by bus or by their families, in hopes of being granted permanent legal entry into the United States. I was on KGO Radio AM-810 in San Francisco this week, where I work as a contributing political analyst. Here are some of the issues we talked about.

“Déjà vu All Over Again” – This is not the first time in relatively recent history we’re seen something like this. The Mariel Boatlift from Cuba to Florida may have been in 1980, but it is very relevant to the modern discussion, (although I concede there are some “apples v. oranges” comparisons here). In any case, the Mariel Boatlift saw 125,000 Cubans flood into the United States. Estimates from the current illegal immigration crisis put anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 unaccompanied foreign children on U.S. soil, primarily in four border states.

“Border Crisis” – Among the differences in the two cases, are the types of people arriving. In the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro released many prison inmates and mental patients onto the waters, headed to Florida. The current case involves mostly juveniles. Nonetheless, there is an unforeseen cost borne by the individual states - and the nation as a whole - when you have such a huge, sudden influx of people. The cost is borne regardless of the various political divisions over what to do. At its basic level, thousands of people are suddenly here and the local, state and federal governments are going to take care of them until a permanent solution is found.

“What Does it Cost?” – It’s hard to put an exact price tag on it this early, but the State of Texas, for example, has budgeted $1.3 million dollars a week just for police overtime pay. That’s $70 million dollars a year. And that’s not counting housing, health care, or food. So far New Mexico, Arizona and California have not put a firm estimate on their costs, but likely will soon.

“Paybacks?” – There is an assumption by many that the states will simply submit a bill to Congress and be reimbursed for their expenses. Sadly, it just doesn’t work like that. For example, in 1988 the State of Florida asked Congress for reimbursement of $148 million dollars for costs from the Mariel Boatlift, (not the true total cost to the state, I suspect). In any case, in 1989, Congress appropriated $35 million dollars to help defray Florida’s expenses. That’s about 25 cents on the dollar and is not a very good rate of return.

“Emergency Aid” – The President’s request to Congress this week was for $3.7 billion dollars. Of that, $1.6 billion is for the Department of Homeland Security to provide additional border enforcement; $1.8 billion is for health care, housing and other care for the children while they are on U.S. soil, for what may be an indefinite period; and, $300 million for a public information campaign in Central America to tell people to stop sending their kids to the border in hopes of securing U.S. citizenship. State reimbursements are not yet specified.

“Policy v. Politics” – Whenever I mention the political fallout from a crisis like this, I will get email comments basically saying, “How can you talk about the impact on elections, this is a humanitarian crisis? It’s about people; not politics!” I know it sounds insensitive, but as I tell my students, “Every public policy decision, has a political implication or impact. Politics is always part of the equation.” Yes, it’s the harsh reality of politics, but it gets discussed in the backroom wheeling and dealing. Unseemly to many, but it’s reality!

“The Fallout” – So what is the political fallout? In the short-term, it is potentially very troubling for Democrats, which is why some in the party have publicly criticized President Obama. He’s not on the ballot this November, but most of them are. Right now, Republicans are teetering on seizing control of the U.S. Senate (and they are very likely to hold the U.S. House).  So, the President and his party may be about to lose most of their leverage in Congress. Have we seen fallout like this before? Yes, in 1980 after the Mariel Boatlift. That crisis ran from April to October of 1980, and the perceived mishandling of it was one of the reasons cited for President Jimmy Carter’s reelection defeat. And that’s not all. In 1980, many of the Mariel refugees were sent to camps in Arkansas, where they rioted. A young Governor by the name of Bill Clinton lost his reelection bid that year, too.

“Complications” – So how long will this crisis last? No one knows, but it could be lengthy. Initially, some of the children will be sent back if they have no legal standing to be in the United States and their families can be located. But many others are likely to claim political asylum (and yes, some have been coached to do just that), so that means drawn out legal proceedings and deportation hearings, and, with thousands in the pipeline the legal system could turn to a grinding halt. Whether people agree with it or not, the United States remains the most humanitarian nation on Earth, especially when it comes to children. Critics will say that is grossly unfair to children in need who are already legal citizens of this country, and their point may be hard to argue. But the notion that busses will just be reloaded and sent back to Guatemala – or elsewhere - is not likely in the short run.

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© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

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