Washington (AFP) - One year into congressional efforts to overhaul US immigration reform, the nation's 11 million undocumented migrants are no closer to legal status, with a swelling humanitarian border crisis only highlighting the system's dysfunction.
Reform efforts are dead in gridlocked Washington, and fingers of blame are pointing every which way.
Republican opponents of President Barack Obama say his administration has failed to seal the porous US-Mexico border.
Democrats accuse House Republicans of sabotaging the US Senate's bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed with great fanfare one year ago Friday.
That first serious attempt at immigration reform since 1986 imposed a series of tough conditions, including a quasi-militarization of the border and a boost in quotas for skilled-worker visas.
But Republicans who control the House of Representatives ultimately shelved the proposal, spooked at the thought of offending their conservative constituents by legalizing millions of immigrants, especially after Hispanic-Americans voted for Obama in droves in 2008 and 2012.
Now, the steady increase of minors, illicitly smuggled from Central America and across Mexico into the United States, has further inflamed an already fiery debate.
Democrats warned this week that lawmakers have until their August recess to work out a legislative solution, or the White House will begin to act on its own.
"We're at the end of the line," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, an architect of last year's bill.
"We're not bluffing by setting a legislative deadline for them to act."
Caught in the middle of the row is House Speaker John Boehner, who has voiced his desire for an overhaul but has appeared straightjacketed by the conservative wing of his party.
"I hope that Speaker Boehner will speak up today," said Senator Dick Durbin.
"And if he does not, the president will borrow the power that is needed to solve the problems of immigration."
Translation: Obama could suspend the deportations of thousands of undocumented migrants who can meet certain criteria.
He took a similar step in 2012, just before the presidential election, granting temporary residence permits to youths who arrived before their 16th birthday. He renewed the program, known as DACA, this year for two more years.
- Border 'out of control'-
Parents of US-born children, or those receiving DACA relief, for example, could get temporary authorization to stay this summer, according to Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
But the humanitarian crisis at the border "feeds this perception and this narrative that the border is out of control," Rosenblum told AFP.
It is a dramatic turnaround from 2011, when the number of arrested illegal immigrants fell to a historic low.
Since October, 52,000 unaccompanied children under age 17 have been detained crossing the border, twice the number from the same period a year ago.
In total, more than 90,000 could be arrested this year, 15 times more than in 2011, according to official figures cited by a Republican lawmaker.
Three-quarters come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Fleeing spasms of violence in their home countries, many are lured by false rumors of "permisos," or residence permits for minors, that are only fueled by what Republican critics argue is Obama's pro-immigration message.
"Apparently, word has gotten out that once encountered by Border Patrol agents and processed, thanks to this administration's lax enforcement policies, one will likely never be removed," House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who oversees House immigration legislation through his committee, told a hearing this week.
The uproar has forced Obama into the awkward position of pleading with Central Americans not to rush the US border.
"Our message absolutely is, don't send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers," Obama told ABC News on Thursday.
"If they do make it, they'll get sent back."
Democrats see a rapidly closing window of opportunity, with few congressional work weeks to thrash out a deal.
Americans elect a new Congress in November, and should Republicans gain control of the Senate, comprehensive immigration reform will hardly be a priority.
- Politics & Government
- Immigration Issues
- Barack Obama
- immigration reform
- House Speaker John Boehner
- US Senate