Hawaii might be thousands of miles away from the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, but questions about how the influx of unaccompanied children should influence our immigration policies transcend the Pacific.

Already, eight children have been sent to Hawaii to help ease the burden on Border Patrol and other federal agencies that have struggled to take care of the nearly 60,000 kids who have crossed into the U.S. since October.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to help with the crisis, but Senate Democrats have snipped $1 billion from the package.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who are squaring off in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, say this funding is needed to help process the children coming over the border.

Border fence in Arizona

The U.S.-Mexico border fence in Arizona.

Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Whether those kids should be allowed to stay as refugees or sent home as undocumented trespassers is a question of immigration and asylum.

“They have to go through the due process, which is really what the problem is now,” Hanabusa said. “That’s the reason that they need the money. Because I don’t think it’s open-the-floodgates time. But I also don’t believe it’s closing-the-floodgates time either.”

Underlying the mass child migration is comprehensive immigration reform, something lawmakers have long fought over.

Living on the Edge

Hawaii faces immigration challenges that are much different from those of the border states and the rest of the mainland.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Hawaii was home to nearly 250,000 immigrants in 2012. That’s nearly 18 percent of the state’s population.

Of those, more than 108,000 are not U.S. citizens, meaning they’re here on visas, are holding green cards or are undocumented.

Clare Hanusz, an immigration attorney in Honolulu, says there are many foreign-born individuals who have lived in the state for decades and entrenched themselves in the community.

When those people are deported, the effects can be devastating, she said. Sometimes, families are split apart.

Once someone is shipped off the islands the distance could mean family members might not see each other for years.

Add to this that many Hawaii immigrants — particularly those from the Philippines — can experience “grim” decade-long waiting periods to reunite with their families, and Hanusz says the issue is primed for debate.

“There are thousands of people in the islands who are literally desperate for immigration reform,” she said. “There are many, many people who are living here on the edge and waiting for something to happen.”

A Stalled Plan

Schatz sighed when asked about immigration reform during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in downtown Honolulu. Like other Democrats, he wants to move on the issue, but he said partisan gridlock won’t allow that to happen.

“This is a situation where the American people have to demand it,” Schatz said. “We’re just not quite there yet in terms of there being a true electoral consequence of not taking action. The Republican Party has hardened its position.”

There was hope that immigration reform could happen this year. But then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to college professor Dave Brat.

Many observers who covered the race said immigration was a defining issue, and that Cantor’s defeat muted any real talks of comprehensive reform.

In fact, it’s been more than a year since the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill that both Schatz and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono voted for in June 2013. It languishes in the House.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz at Civil Beat editorial board

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That proposal provided a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. It also included a “border surge” amendment that would dramatically increase security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among other things, that provision stated that before any undocumented immigrants could qualify for green cards, the government would need to beef up its border patrol force by 20,000 agents, implement a nationwide E-Verify system for employers to be able check a person’s immigration status and build another 700 miles of border fencing.

Schatz said that portion of the bill was “an atrocious waste of money” and a “defense contractor’s dream.”

But he also acknowledged that it was part of a bipartisan compromise that at one point was estimated to cut the federal deficit by $200 billion over the course of a decade.

“I thought it was an all-in-all balanced package,” Schatz said.

“This is a situation where the American people have to demand it. We’re just not quite there yet in terms of there being a true electoral consequence of not taking action.” — Sen. Brian Schatz

There were aspects of the bill, however, that made Schatz uncomfortable, particularly as it related to family members of legal residents who were trying to immigrate to the country.

He said the family reunification piece — which is of particular importance to Hawaii — would have made it more difficult for siblings or residents to come to the U.S.

And while Schatz said it was a “no-brainer” to allow more highly skilled immigrants into the country, he had misgivings about an immigration point system that provided an advantage to people with college degrees.

“The problem is when you’re coming from a developing country that’s absolutely discriminatory against women,” Schatz said, “Women aren’t going to have higher education degrees in places that aren’t as progressive as the United States in terms of education policy.”

Hirono, an immigrant, was particularly vocal about this in 2013, and Schatz praised her for her leadership in the discussion.

A Common Understanding

Hanabusa told Civil Beat she has been similarly frustrated with the Republicans when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform.

Without a wide-ranging solution on the horizon, she said Congress should focus on the areas where Democrats and Republicans can agree.

“What I was hoping that we would see is comprehensive immigration reform,” Hanabusa said last week at her Chinatown campaign headquarters. “I would prefer … that we carve out categories of people who should have the pathway to citizenship a lot quicker and not have to wait until all of these different things happen.”

Colleen Hanabusa

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Specifically, she said would like to see Congress figure out ways to help certain undocumented immigrants who came into the country as children and have since joined the military or gone to college. These individuals are sometime referred to as DREAMers, named after the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

In fact, she said earlier this year there was a move to help undocumented military personnel who had come to the U.S. as children with a way to get a green card and eventual citizenship through the National Defense Authorization Act, but that it was blocked by Republicans.

The congresswoman said she’s not opposed to expanding these privileges to others, so long as they can fill employment needs in the U.S. or provide some other economic benefits to the country.

“I would prefer … that we carve out categories of people who should have the pathway to citizenship a lot quicker and not have to wait until all of these different things happen.” — Rep. Colleen Hanabusa

When talking about her “sweet spot” for immigration reform, however, Hanabusa points to a bill introduced in 2005 by the bipartisan senatorial duo of John McCain, a Republican, and Ted Kennedy, a Democrat.

That bill called for increased security and intelligence at the border while reforming the guest worker system to allow employers to hire foreigners on temporary visas if they couldn’t find American workers.

Most importantly, the bill provided undocumented immigrants already in the country a way to citizenship so long as they paid a fine in addition to back taxes they might owe.

“It was purely one that looked at the number of undocumented workers that we had and tried to figure out what it is we can do,” Hanabusa said. “We need to sit back and we need to realize what it is that they are doing for our nation and what type of services they’re providing.”

She added: “There’s no reason why we can’t come to some common understanding.”

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