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Immigration fix begins in home nations of refugees

President Barack Obama on Tuesday presented the administration’s bill for managing the refugee crisis on the U.S. southern border: $3.7 billion.

It’s a huge sum, almost twice what was expected, but not enough will be spent where it can make the most difference.

Much of the requested money would go to enforcement agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, which has been stressed by tens of thousands of Central American children crossing through Mexico into the United States. Only a small portion of the funds would actually reach Central America – where the crisis starts, and the most challenging yet cost-effective place to address it.

Almost half the total would be devoted to taking care of those children already in the U.S. There’s no question this is difficult, important and expensive work. These children need food, medical care and, obviously, a place to stay. Most need help finding their relatives; once found, their relatives need to be screened before the children are turned over. Finally, the children are entitled to a hearing on whether they can remain in the U.S., which can drag on for months or years.

The system is meant to be humane. But it is not sustainable.

The administration was unforgivably tardy in responding to the influx of children at the border; it’s possible that a more aggressive intervention would have mitigated the crisis.

Equally important, Congress must find the maturity and competence to let the administration proceed. This problem can’t be solved by calling in the National Guard, as Speaker John Boehner has suggested, or by stacking agents like so many cords of wood along the border. The trouble isn’t too many children sneaking across the line, it is too many children walking purposefully into U.S. custody.

More immigration lawyers, judges and social workers – at a price tag of $64 million in the president’s request – can help expedite the difficult process of discerning who is an eligible refugee and who must be deported.

But to stem the flow of migrants, the U.S. must establish – and help to pay for – deterrence programs in Central American nations. One pilot program in Guatemala, for example, gives children repatriated from the U.S. a safe place to stay and provides education and job training. Beefed-up services at U.S. embassies and consulates could also help. Sens. Charles Schumer and John McCain, a Democrat and a Republican, have suggested requiring claims for refugee status to be made at U.S. embassies in Central America rather than on U.S. soil.

The White House has called for only $300 million for international programs. (The 2008 law under which the administration is operating specifically called for programs to assist in reintegrating and resettling victims of trafficking.) The more children can find services and hope in their own countries, the fewer will be tempted to make the dangerous trek north.

This will not be an easy or short process. The children are lured north by hopes of amnesty. But they are also pushed by legitimate fears of powerful street gangs, violent crime and a future of dead ends. Reversing that tide will take time. U.S. policy cannot by itself reduce violence in Central America. But the U.S. can do itself and its struggling neighbors a favor by fostering decent alternatives to the trip north.