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The Border Crisis Is Complex. This Conservative Pundit Isn't Helping.

Simply shipping kids back to Central America isn't a solution.

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Hey, everybody. You can stop struggling with the moral and practical complexities of the border crisis. Charles Krauthammer has it all figured out.

On Friday, Krauthammer’s Washington Post column carried the headline “The Immigration No-Brainer.” Sometimes headlines are too simplistic. This one wasn’t. “Stopping this wave is not complicated,” Krauthammer wrote, referring to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. All it would take, Krauthammer said, was changing the 2008 law that forbids U.S. officials from returning these kids immediately, as they do routinely for kids that show up from Mexico. “A serious president would go to Congress tomorrow proposing a change in the law,” Krauthammer wrote. “When the first convoys begin rolling town to town across Central America, the influx will stop.”

Krauthammer isn’t the only one proposing to revisit that the 2008 law. Republicans have made similar calls. Obama Administration officials have indicated they, too, might support some kind of modification.

Just to be clear, the idea isn’t crazy. The law, the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008,” guarantees that children who arrive from countries other than Canada or Mexico can appear before an immigration court and talk to an advocate beforehand. It also recommends that the kids have legal counsel, although that doesn’t happen much of the time. But the purpose of the law, which passed in the final days of the Bush Administration, was to stop sex trafficking—not to change migration patterns from Central America, as it seems to have done.

The recent influx of kids has created a huge backlog in the immigration courts, which don’t have the capacity to process so many cases so quickly. Without capacity to detain minors for such long stretches of time, officials end up sending them to live with family in the U.S.—or, in some cases, placing them in foster homes—and setting future court dates.

Meanwhile, the kids keep coming, in part because they and their families think they will get to stay in the U.S. permanently. They believe this because they are hearing it from smugglers, by word-of-mouth, or though some combination of the two.

But these rumors aren’t the only reason so many minors are coming to the U.S. There’s another part of the story—one that Krauthammer and a lot of his conservative buddies barely acknowledge.

The conditions in those three countries really are brutal, in ways that are nearly unique. Gang violence and the miseries we associate with failed states have made El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras three of the deadliest countries in the world. As my colleague Danny Vinik has pointed out, the homicide rate in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, dwarfs the rate of even the most violent American cities.

These conditions don’t simply tug at the heartstrings. In many cases, they trigger provisions of U.S. law that grant asylum or special immigration status to juveniles—provisions that have been in existence for a long time, because they are consistent with American values of compassion and promotion of human rights.

It’s hard to know how many of the kids showing up at the border actually satisfy the legal threshold for such protection. A 2012 estimate from the Vera Institute of Justice suggested that 40 percent of unaccompanied minors would qualify for some kind of special immigration status. A more recent estimate from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees suggested the figure now is closer to 60 percent. Administration officials have said a far smaller percentage would actually get to stay.

But whether the number is high or low, clearly some significant percentage of these minors should be remain here, under long-standing law and practice. That won’t happen if they don’t go through a formal legal process, the kind that’s not possible with immediate repatriation. “[We] are not saying that all these kids are eligible to stay in the U.S.,” Megan McKenna, a spokesperson for Kids in Need of Defense told me, “but that each and every one should have a fair chance to access the U.S. immigration system.”

Addressing the border crisis won’t be easy. We don’t want to turn away kids fleeing dreadful conditions, particularly after such a harrowing journey. But we can’t possibly let in all would-be immigrants fleeing poverty or violence. And we don’t want to encourage more parents to send their kids in the first place. Finding the right balance among these imperatives requires, first and foremost, acknowledging the complexity of the situation. That’s why Krauthammer, and those making similar calls, are doing us such a disservice.

Jonathan Cohn

Things to know

HEALTH: The Center of Disease Control has admitted to following lax safety standards in their handling of different bacteria, including anthrax and bird flu. (Richard Fausset and Donald G. McNeil JrNew York Times)

WALL STREET: Citigroup became the second megabank to settle with the government over its mortgage-lending services, agreeing to pay $7 billion. This follows J.P. Morgan's record $13 billion settlement in November. Bank of America is currently in negotiations with the federal government to settle its own charges. (Saabira Chaudhuri and Christina RexrodeWall Street Journal)

IN THE STATES: Seattle plans to legalize Uber, Lyft and Sidecar on Monday, but will add a 10 cent surcharge tax to every ride. The money will go towards helping wheelchair-accessible cabs. (Alexa VaughnSeattle Times)

ECONOMY: Americans are spending more money this summer, but much of it is going to rising food, electricity and health care bills.(Jonnelle MarteWashington Post)

Things to read

Border CrisisE.J. Dionne argues that the crisis "has brought out the very worst in our political system" and wonders why church leaders aren't speaking out on behalf of the migrant children. (Washington Post)

Health care: At Vox, Sarah Kliff explains research behind the "July effect." Should you be worried about going to a hospital in July?

Things to watch

The House is working on the Financial Services appropriations bill. Also, expect to hear more about new legislation from Senate Democrats to reverse the Supreme Court'sHobby Lobby decision.

Things at QED

Danny Vinik explains how new legislation in the House to patch the funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund reveals the GOP's incredible hypocrisy on unemployment insurance.