The Unaccompanied Minor Border Crisis and the Future of the Republican Party

Earlier this year, Congressional Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “One Year Later, Same Old Party,” in which she explained the reasons why the Republican Party (GOP) had failed to attract and engage minority voters in the time leading up to the 2012 Presidential election.

Wasserman Schultz’s analysis centered on the findings from the Republican-initiated “Growth and Opportunity Project,” (called the Republican Autopsy Report by The New York Times writer Thomas B. Edsall) published following President Obama’s successful reelection. The report stated, unequivocally, that one of the GOP’s most pressing concerns looking ahead to the Presidential race of 2016 was their proclivity to “alienate huge swaths of the electorate, including women, people of color and young Americans.”

This summer, at the height of the unaccompanied minor crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Republican Party took measures to further alienate itself from the very people it needs to win in 2016: people of color, young Americans, and specifically Latinos.

According to the US Government, as many as 60,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been apprehended by the U.S. Border patrol since October of 2013.

Some experts claim that the surge in young children can be attributed to the passage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) bill in 2012. This bill granted temporary permission to live and work in the US to eligible undocumented youth who had arrived before the age of fifteen and were currently residing in the country. This permission would last for two years and came with the promise of renewal.

For families in these Central American countries, the promise of DACA further incentivized the journey to the U.S.

Unfortunately, the conditions and benefits of DACA were not made abundantly clear. Human smugglers, or coyotes as they are referred to, often transmitted false and embellished information to the unaccompanied minors’ parents, claiming that DACA would grant their children immediate citizenship upon arrival.

Other reports claim that in addition to the unaccompanied minors’ families being deceived, they also fled impoverished economic conditions, compounded by the threat of violence, rape, and persecution carried out by drug and gang organizations seeking to actively recruit the children.

The vitriolic reactions by members of the GOP to the recent surge in undocumented minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, in addition to the explicit refusal to support humanitarian aid for these minors, puts both the future of the Republican Party and those minors in a precarious position.

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in July 2014 demonstrated that an overwhelming number of Americans (69%) believed that children arriving from Central America should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay in the U.S. if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home countries. However, many Republican lawmakers have been unwilling to support this viewpoint and they were unwilling to approve Obama’s proposed $3.7 billion emergency fund request to deal with the crisis.

It was a deciding moment that could have potentially swayed the popular opinion pendulum and reconfigured the Republican Party’s perception among young people and voters of color. Not only would it have helped the GOP’s popularity; it would have helped to rewrite the overwhelmingly anti-immigrant narrative embedded within the party’s structure.

So how exactly do these actions affect the Republican Party?

Here are two potential ways:

  • Refusing to support aid for the latest border crisis and labeling it, in the words of the infamous governor from Texas, Rick Perry, a “failure of diplomacy,” exacerbates a stark political divide with tangible repercussions including, but not limited to healthcare treatment, speedy transportation, language translators, and court filing for the minors. The experience at the border, for many of the children, will impact how their relatives, in the U.S. and abroad, process the events for years to come. As the Latino voting bloc grows in size, Republicans will struggle to overcome generational angst directed at the GOP by U.S. citizens of Latino origin.
  • Many of this country’s burgeoning Latino populations are now settling, working, and living in “non-traditional” destinations. That is, Latino-origin groups have transcended traditional host sites in the Southwest. Today, in the Midwest and the South, Latinos are challenging the political, racial, and social fabric. Understanding this phenomenon is critical for the GOP. What were once “red” (Republican majority) states have the potential to be transformed into “blue” (Democrat majority) states by the sons and daughters of Latino immigrants, many of which are the same age as the unaccompanied minors. Events like the unaccompanied minor crisis resonate with Latino voters who, for the most part, empathize with the minors, which will impact the political future of new destinations.

While this may seem like an issue endemic to the Central American region, Republican leaders are, in many respects, reacting to the effects of foreign policy decisions carried out by a Republican controlled White House during much of the 1970s and 1980s, which led to widespread economic, political, and social upheaval in the region and an estimated 300,000 deaths in Guatemala alone.

In short, many of the push factors that galvanized the unaccompanied minor exodus are the direct impacts of the Central American Civil Wars.

Yet the Republican response to the Central American conflict, then and now, has been almost entirely consistent. President Ronald Reagan, then, refused to provide aid and grant asylum to thousands of Central American refugees who fled to the U.S.

Today, Congressional Republicans have followed suit and vigorously opposed asylum requests as well as humanitarian support for the minors.

If the Republican Party is to transform its constituency, divert from a past delineated by controversial foreign policy decisions in Latin American countries, reinvigorate its conservative base, and attract diversity, it will take more than vacuous discourse and hollow promises. Failing to accomplish this has, as history has shown, the potential to produce unintended consequences moving forward.

Photo by Makaristos (public domain)

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