For once, I have to agree with the White House. They’re right to deny that the debacle along the border with Mexico is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina moment. It’s actually much worse.
White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz said it wasn’t fair to compare the debacle along the border with Mexico to Hurricane Katrina. She’s right about that. The Katrina analogy has been mooted by a number of conservative writers but got some extra juice this week when Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose Texas district is situated along the border where locals have been overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigration, used the K word when discussing President Obama’s reaction to the problem. Obama’s decision to avoid the border this week even though he was already scheduled to go to Texas for a political fundraiser was widely compared to the awful optics that ensued when President Bush was photographed flying over New Orleans after it was devastated by the storm.
Bush had good reasons for not parachuting into an area where first responders and reinforcements were already overwhelmed by the disaster. His presence on the ground would have done nothing to help anyone. Nor is it clear that Obama going to the border would do a thing to fix the crisis there. Yet both presidents suffered for those decisions because their physical distance from events was interpreted by the public as symbolic of their indifference to problems the federal government seemed unable to fix.
But contrary to the White House interpretation of events, the injustice here is not to Obama but to Bush. After all, despite some of the more extreme criticisms aimed at the 43rd president, nobody really believed Bush was capable of causing bad weather or had any impact on whether the levees were strong enough to prevent floods. Katrina was a natural disaster and though the response to it was clearly inadequate, the failures were mostly the fault of the collapse of local and state authorities rather than federal bungling. The push to blame Bush for it was largely the result of media distortions in which the perception of racism overwhelmed the facts.
Though real, the suffering along the border isn’t quite on the scale of the destruction of a major American city, but it must also be pointed out that this isn’t a natural disaster. While we can debate about what the best response to it now would be, attempts to deny that the massive increase in the influx of illegals is largely due to the president’s statements about allowing children to stay are unpersuasive. Bush didn’t make the weather but, like it or not, Obama did encourage the people of Central America to believe that all they had to do to attain residency in the U.S. was to make it across the border. Even worse, his response to the crisis has seemed to center on attempts to blame it on Republican unwillingness to adopt immigration reform rather than on an effort to defend the border and to ensure that the influx of illegals are swiftly sent home.
But the problem here isn’t merely one of perception. Nor is it strictly speaking a matter of fixing an immigration system badly in need of repair.
Even if House Republicans had embraced the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, the situation along the border might be just as bad. The legislation did call for a massive increase in spending on border security. But even though I think the bill was worthy of support, it’s hard to argue with conservatives who point out that Obama has shown little interest in policing the border while simultaneously making it clear that he was willing to allow illegals to stay in the country.
Moreover, the push from the United Nations, welcomed by some liberals, to treat illegals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as “refugees” rather than mere illegal aliens shows the danger that stems from Obama’s attitudes. The violence in these countries is nothing new. Those who came here did so primarily for understandable economic reasons. While Republicans need to consider administration calls for granting the government $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the crisis, the real problem is an administration that has acted to bypass Congress and refused to enforce immigration laws that it doesn’t like.
Will Obama be hurt as much by the border fiasco as Bush was by the hurricane? No. Though the president has damaged his standing with the public—including many who agree with him on immigration reform—by the indifferent response to the crisis, the mainstream media continues to have his back even as his second term heads inevitably toward lame duck status. There will be no press pile-on about Obama hobnobbing with Democratic donors who paid $10,000 to nosh on barbecue in the presidential presence the way Bush was crucified for his Katrina fly-by.
But what we are witnessing is a humanitarian disaster that was created by a thoughtless administration that has trashed the rule of law on immigration and found itself surprised by a crisis of its own making. As bad as Bush’s hurricane optics were, history will judge Obama’s behavior far more harshly.