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The Border Crisis Is Not "Obama's Katrina." Not Even Close.

Pool/Getty Images

Rarely have we been presented with a policy problem as complex as the crisis unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, where thousands of women and children, including many unaccompanied minors, have been making their way from Central America to the Rio Grande Valley under the impression, or simply the hope, that they will be able to remain in the U.S. once across the border.

There are countless facets of the crisis to consider. What role are child trafficking laws playing in hamstringing the Obama administration in sending the kids back home? Should we, in fact, reevaluate our asylum laws to reckon with the claims of the new arrivals that they are fleeing rampant political and gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras? Where should the children be housed in the interim while their final status is being adjudicated, given the NIMBYism that has quickly sprung up in some of the locations under consideration?

One could delve into these questions. Or, if among the Beltway commentariat, one could just dwell on the political optics, which means asking, for the ninth time in the past five and a half years, “Is this Obama’s Katrina?” This comparison was inevitable from the get-go, given the spectacle of chaos and human suffering playing out in the nation’s southern reaches, but it has been spurred further by Obama’s decision not to visit the border himself while attending fundraisers in Dallas and Austin this week. (The White House, which today requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the migrant surge, says Obama will meet with Texas officials to discuss the crisis, but not at the border.) This close-but-not-present proximity to the crisis is being equated to President George W. Bush’s glimpse of Katrina’s destruction from 30,000 feet above on Air Force One while returning from a vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The comparison was made explicitly Monday night by Rep. Henry Cuellar, the Democratic congressman from South Texas, and the pundits have run wild with it. So has GOP political strategist Ed Rogers in the Washington Post:

President George W. Bush’s August 31, 2005 fly-over of New Orleans, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina was a turning point in his presidency. The fact that he did not land in New Orleans couldn’t help but create the impression he was indifferent to American citizens in their hour of need. The imagery was shocking and the rest is history. ...

Well, President Obama is traveling to Texas this week for political fundraisers, as thousands of illegal immigrants continue to overwhelm the border, but he has so far ignored Texas Governor Rick Perry’s urgent plea to visit the border. His refusal to even go and look disrespects Texans and everyone else affected by this illegal immigration. It’s shocking that the president would avoid visiting ground zero of what essentially constitutes an invasion of America. What does an invasion look like, if not this? Do the invaders have to be of a certain age?

And we have more ruminations on the optics of border-avoidance from the National Journal:

President Obama evidently has decided not to put a human face on the crisis unfolding at the southern U.S. border—not even his own.

The White House said over and over again Monday that Obama will not travel to the border with Mexico despite flying to Texas this week to raise money for Democratic candidates there.

It's certainly in part a political decision, one meant to avoid taking ownership of a difficult issue on which the White House would prefer to share blame. But it's also one that will inflame Obama's critics on both the right and left who say the administration has been too passive in response to the thousands of young border-crossers swamping U.S. detention facilities.

The Nazis invade Poland in 1939.

Where to start with all this? There is the absurdity of suggesting that the crisis does not yet have a “human face,” that it would require a photo op by the president to achieve that (apparently images like this don’t count). There is the hyperventilation and lack of perspective in Rogers declaring the border “ground zero of what essentially constitutes an invasion of America.” (For the record, Ed, this is what an invasion “looks like.”) Above all, though, there is the failure to consider even the most basic differences in context between the crisis in New Orleans and the Gulf coast in 2005 and what has been unfolding on the border. In the former instance, we were presented with an administration that willfully downplayed both the immediate threat of the approaching storm and the broader threat that, if the climatologists are to be believed, was represented by the storm.

In the latter instance, we are presented with an administration struggling to contain one particularly dramatic manifestation of a problem—a broken immigration policy—that the administration itself has been trying to fix, has indeed made its chief priority for the remainder of the president’s term, but has been stymied in comprehensively addressing by the identity crisis–driven obstructionism and indifference of the party that controls the House of Representatives. Other than that, yes, this is just like Hurricane Katrina. And the women and children lingering on the border, and the overwhelmed Border Patrol personnel trying their best to manage their presence, will be awaiting the magic word of whether the president’s caravan will be arriving on the horizon, which will surely solve everything.