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Anatomy Of A Border Crisis: How Child Migrants Became America's Top Issue

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AP Photo / Mark J. Terrill

Immigration advocates and border towns began to notice a significant uptick this spring, said Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro, a deputy vice president at the pro-immigration National Council of La Raza. In May, when U.S. housing facilities in border regions were overwhelmed, officials began sending them to Arizona and California. That's when attention to the issue grew.

Here's a brief timeline of how the crisis came to the national spotlight.

June 2: The Obama administration announces a coordinated government response to the "influx of unaccompanied immigrant children at the border" and appoints the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help address the crisis. "We must, and we will, address this situation," says Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

This prompts a swift response from House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) who sees an opportunity to blame President Barack Obama's "lax immigration enforcement policies" for the crisis. "The recent surge of children and teenagers from Central America showing up at our Southern border is an Administration-made disaster and now President Obama is calling in FEMA to mitigate the damage," Goodlatte says in a statement on the same day, promising a House hearing into the matter.

June 5: Texas-based Breitbart journalist Brandon Darby puts a face on the crisis by unearthing dozens of chilling photos of the undocumented children being packed into crowded cells. Many looked scared and confused. The images immediately light up social media and gain banner-headline coverage on the Huffington Post and Drudge Report.

"We were able to acquire a pretty damn good selection of photos from all nine processing stations in the Rio Grande Valley," Darby told TPM recently in an interview. "So we put them out. Then Drudge put them up. Fox News and CNN called, and Univision and Telemundo got involved. What really did it is when the Huffington Post contacted me and said, 'can we use the photos?' HuffPo put the story out and they made it the front page for the entire day. Once that happened local channels got interested, then The Guardian and the Times of London picked it up and it kinda blew up."

"It went a long way to humanize people," Darby said. "The motivation was to show what's going on. This is serious shit." Did the photos play a prominent role in elevating the issue nationally? "I think it did — I think clearly it did," he said.

June 9: CNN reports on the busing of more than 100 child migrants to Arizona to house them while they were being processed by the system. This is now a growing trend and it's beginning to earn headlines in national newspapers and increasing attention from cable networks.

June 12: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) sends a letter to congressional leaders blaming the crisis on Obama's "refusal to enforce our nation's immigration laws" and urging them to "take action, get answers and stop the lawlessness that is unfolding." This catches the attention of national Republicans, who also point their fingers at the president.

"I think this exploded when DHS started dropping kids off at bus stations in Arizona and Jan Brewer went nuts," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigrant rights group America's Voice. "Then the Republicans jumped on it, seeing it as a chance to perpetuate their bullshit memes: the border is out of control, Obama's lax enforcement is the reason why, and his executive action [to delay deportation of young people] incentivized kids risking their lives."

June 16: The White House emphasizes that the new childhood arrivals won't qualify for the administration's deferred action program of 2012, lambasting "criminal syndicates" in Central America for spreading rumors to the contrary. It says it will deploy Vice President Joe Biden to Central American countries to drive the point home and correct "misperceptions" of U.S. immigration policy. The White House adds that while some of the children may qualify for asylum through existing channels, most of them will be sent back home.

June 19: The story explodes as congressional Republican leaders elevate the issue to the top of their agenda and wield it as a weapon against Obama. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican, writes an op-ed for Fox News calling on the president to fix the "border crisis." House Speaker John Boehner declares it a "humanitarian disaster" encouraged by the Obama administration's actions.

"The right has wanted to highlight their message that the situation is out of control and the Obama administration is incompetent in responding to it and managing it. The [Breitbart] photos were a factor," said Sharry, adding that protests in Murrieta, Calif. against the migrants there were also a factor.

Meanwhile, CNN continues its coverage with a lengthy exposé on the "largest refugee crisis on U.S. soil" since Cubans fled the Castro regime in 1980. It contains harrowing stories about children fleeing violence in Central America, sometimes leaving their parents behind, in the hope of finding a better life in the United States. One of them is Daniel Penado Zavala, 17, who fled San Salvador after his stepfather was murdered by thugs and once he became convinced he'd also become a victim of gang violence.

June 25: The House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing into the matter and the title sets a partisan tone: "An Administration Made Disaster." Republicans have a simple message: it's Obama's fault for being lenient with some undocumented youth and thus sending the wrong message. Democrats dismiss that as political talk and another Republican pretext to kill immigration reform, pointing out that the border is more secure than ever and that the children are being apprehended by U.S. officials.

Martinez of NCLR said the issue was ripe for GOP exploitation. "Both their favorite claims came into play: blame the president and kill DACA," she said.

Within days, the obituaries for comprehensive immigration reform start coming in, with the migrant crisis described as yet another complicating factor.

July 8: After wall-to-wall national news coverage, visits to the border by members of Congress and demands from Republicans to fix the problem, Obama formally requests $3.7 billion in emergency funding to add more detention centers and bring in more judges to speedily process the undocumented children. Republicans immediately balk at the price tag and set up their own House working group to find a solution. And so ensues a political fight over how to address the crisis.

The following day Obama visits Texas and meets with Gov. Rick Perry (R) before demanding in a televised press conference that Republicans approve his supplemental if they actually want to fix the problem. "The question is are we more interested in politics, or are we more interested in solving the problem?" he says. Boehner lashes back at him the morning after. Still no solution.

In the ensuing days, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) teams up with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who has a frosty relationship with the White House, to craft a bill amending a 2008 anti-trafficking law that prohibits U.S. officials from turning away minors at the border who are coming from places other than Canada or Mexico. As they near a deal, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) come out against their plan.

July 16: A Gallup poll finds that immigration is now seen as the most important problem in the United States — astonishingly, it ranks even higher than the economy and jobs. The number of Americans who see immigration and "illegal aliens" as the country's top issue is 17 percent, up more than threefold from one month ago.

The following day Boehner tells reporters he doesn't "have as much optimism as I'd like to have" that Congress will complete the emergency funding package before it leaves town at the end of the month for summer recess.