Granting political asylum to homeschoolers while making it harder for kids fleeing gang violence in Central America to find refuge in the United States is the latest in a wave of little noticed anti-immigrant proposals emerging from the Republican Congress. GOP lawmakers want to tighten laws that allow unaccompanied minors, often running away from violent and dangerous situations, to remain in the United States. But at the same time, they are seeking to protect a German homeschooling family with six children whose appeal for asylum was turned down by a federal appeals court judge who ruled that fleeing compulsory education in Germany did not qualify as credible persecution.
A petition to grant the devoutly Christian Romeike family, who arrived in the United States in 2008, permanent legal status got 127,258 signatures on a White House “We the People” petition, an online forum to persuade the Obama administration to take action. Last year the Department of Homeland Security declined to deport them, extending the family’s “deferred action” indefinitely, mirroring President Obama’s executive orders on immigration that have so angered the GOP.
The family, with their now seven children (the last was born after they arrived), are happily settled in Morristown, Tennessee, but that victory was not sufficient for Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, who sponsored the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, which seeks to define homeschoolers as a group eligible for federal protection. Under current law, asylum is granted to people persecuted because of their race, religion, or membership in a distinct group.
“This is a far-fetched, unprecedented claim to define a social group and an act of persecution,” says Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s silly to try to bootstrap a prohibition on homeschooling into a recognized claim of persecution.”
At the same time, the Asylum Reform bill, which was approved this month by the House Judiciary Committee, tightens the “credible fear of persecution” standard for asylum for other groups, bars the Obama administration from using taxpayer money to provide lawyers for the unaccompanied children from Central America, and makes it a criminal (instead of civil) violation to overstay a visa. If it became law, the bill would have the effect of “gumming up the works,” and leaving tens of thousands of children without any legal representation, a senior White House official told The Daily Beast.
Yet where is the outrage? Democrats appear resigned to the status quo of a Republican-controlled House passing legislation that pleases their base, but ultimately will go nowhere. “A partisan, punitive approach may attract attention in some circles, but it’s not a serious effort to legislate,” says the White House official, adding that doesn’t mean the GOP gets a pass. “If you were to watch Spanish language TV, they cover it extensively every day. Outrage is at a high boil.”
It was December 2005, when Rep. James Sensenbrenner, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the GOP-controlled House, released his bill saying that anyone in the country illegally is a felon, and that those who help them could face criminal penalties. It triggered marches in the street in 2006. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in more than 100 cities angered by the bill’s provision. “It would have made felons out of the entire population,” says Fitz. The current bill has the same thrust, he says, referring to it as “the 2005 Sensenbrenner bill re-imagined.”
The current bill has not gotten the attention of the earlier bill because no one believes it will make it to the president’s desk or survive the veto it would certainly receive, he explains.
A lot has happened in the decade since immigration reform activists took to the streets and the Republicans lost the House in 2006, then won it back in 2010 with Obama in the White House. Expectations for comprehensive immigration reform were raised, then dashed, and now they’re on hold until the next election, no more than political fodder for both sides. “I don’t recall any other three-month period where more aggressive anti-immigrant legislation has been introduced and debated,” says Fitz. There were six hearings in the House two weeks ago, and three in the Senate last week, on border security. “None of it is going anywhere,” he says.
The depth of Republican fury over Obama’s executive action on immigration is also holding up Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as Attorney General, now not expected until mid-April, five months after she was nominated.
The likely effect is to cement the branding of Republicans as anti-immigration, which is not good for them going into a national election. Yet they can’t seem to help themselves. Democrats say they’re fine with protecting homeschoolers from Germany if Republicans would extend the same spirit of generosity to Central American kids whose lives are threatened. That won’t happen for several reasons, including the complexity of asylum laws.
The homeschoolers the GOP wants to protect are Christians who want to shield their children from outside influences in public schools, and their claim to do so stems from the same ideological terrain that says people should have the right to turn down mandatory health insurance. It’s a minor provision in a larger overhaul of asylum procedures, but the winners and losers are obvious, and they fall along partisan lines complicated by religion and race.