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What Obama could learn on the border

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: President Obama should visit the border in light of crisis
  • He says Obama's call for more spending is right, but won't stop flow of people seeking refuge
  • Republicans will have to accept more spending on border and immigration, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- It's the law of unintended consequences.

Each time Americans spend billions to fortify the border by building fences or hiring Border Patrol agents, human traffickers raise their prices.

Today, it costs about $3,000 to move a person across the border. It's less if you brave mountain lions and cross off the beaten path. It's more if you cross near civilization and absolutely positively have to be there overnight. If we bolster enforcement, the price could soar to $6,000.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

How do we win a battle against an opponent when, the more we spend to defeat him, the more we empower him to fight back?

This riddle could stump anyone, but President Barack Obama seems to find it especially difficult.

Raised in Hawaii and having lived in Chicago, Obama is a newbie to the border. He's made one memorable visit in 5½ as president and he must have felt as if he landed on another planet.

Border Democrat on immigration crisis

Even on this week's fundraising swing through Texas, Obama couldn't find time to visit the border.

That was his loss. When you travel from San Diego to Douglas, Arizona, to Columbus, New Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, it's like you're visiting several worlds at once. Each stretch has its own script. It's a fascinating area -- unless you're not interested.

Obama doesn't seem all that interested in the border, except when he can use it as a weapon.

In May 2011, during a visit to El Paso, Texas, Obama mocked Republicans by saying they wanted to build a moat on the border and fill it with alligators.

This week, in Dallas, more than 500 miles from the border, the president revealed his plans for tens of thousands of kids whose heads are filled with nightmares.

Since October, spurred by violent youth gangs in their home countries and fake news reports of "permisos" for young people approved by Congress, about 52,000 children and teenagers from Central America have been apprehended on the border.

"Apprehended" is too generous a word, since most of these people reportedly went up to Border Patrol agents with their arms raised and asked to be arrested. These uninvited guests are neither invading nor evading. They're surrendering.

A lot of Texas Democrats probably thought it was a bad idea for Obama to snub the border, and one said so out loud.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, suggested that Obama's failure to survey firsthand the scene of the crisis evoked memories of President George W. Bush viewing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from an airplane flying high overhead.

This week, Cuellar said: "I hope this doesn't become the Katrina moment for President Obama, saying that he doesn't need to come to the border. He should come down."

Now that U.S. officials have custody of the border kids, many of whom were -- according to media reports -- sexually assaulted or had their lives threatened, the hard part is deciding what to do with them. Do we really want to send them back? Are we that monstrous?

Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis -- which includes $1.8 billion to help the Department of Health and Human Services provide better care for the children, and another $1.6 billion to help the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice expedite their removal. The remaining $300 million would go to the State Department to help Latin American governments counter the misinformation campaign.

This budgetary whiplash -- where we show these kids some kindness before banishing them to the dark, desperate and dangerous places from which they escaped -- summarizes Obama's muddled approach to the immigration issue, where he tries to be both tough and compassionate and winds up confused.

We need more border funding, but we could also use a lot more honestly and clarity in this debate. Money can't buy that.

Liberals will have to swallow the fact that it was their foil, George W. Bush, who signed a law in 2008 giving safe haven to unaccompanied minors from Central America, and now it's their champion, Barack Obama, who seeks the power to override it.

Meanwhile, conservatives are putting up a fight against the funding, but that won't last. They can't stand the idea of letting these kids stay here and grow up to become dependents and Democrats, and so they have to help Obama fund their return. For a while, there will be a tug-of-war in the GOP between the border hawks and budget hawks. But the former will win.

That's a good outcome. It would also be good for Congress to pass immigration reform, and for Obama to ease up on deportations.

For now, the administration needs the $3.7 billion, and it should get every penny. Congress should be generous, and the President should be diligent, but neither of them should be naive.

On the border, enforcement dollars are no silver bullet. We can hire more Border Patrol agents, build more walls, and expedite deportations. But none of that will stop the downtrodden, desperate, and determined from seeking refuge in a country that is supposed to be in the business of offering it.

And if Obama spent more time on the border, he'd already know that.

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