On border woes, cancel the crazy Katrina comparisons

Anti-immigration activists protest outside of the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station in Murrieta, California on Monday, July 7, 2014.

Sandy Huffaker, Getty Images

This article originally appeared in National Journal.

DALLAS -- Katrina is Katrina.

Nothing else compares in terms of engineering, management, and government failure. It is a singular nightmare of nature. A maelstrom of human bungling intensified its misery with harrowing, near-homicidal effect.

For those who forget, 1,833 Americans died in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Fifty-three levees in and around New Orleans were breached, submerging 80 percent of the city. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 33,500 stranded people. Three million lost electricity. Federal disaster declarations covered 90,000 square miles--nearly the area of the United Kingdom. Property damages equaled $108 billion.

A sorry trinity of President George W. Bush, Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin botched pre-storm preparations and evacuations. Bush and Blanco fought pointlessly over jurisdiction while the marooned suffered on rooftops or inside dystopian shelters like the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center. What appalls in Katrina is the utter absence of conspiracy. Banal ineptitude killed and sickened people.

Bush's forlorn aerial inspection of Katrina's damage conveyed a sense of bewilderment bordering on indifference. In this, comparisons can prove too convenient. Katrina catnip seizes the imagination of those grasping for metaphors (and Web clicks) to describe a president vexed or overwhelmed by a crisis.

President Obama already received that treatment with the Gulf oil spill. And Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas gave him the business earlier this week over the 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America now being detained in Texas and elsewhere.

Whatever the immigration mess is, Katrina it is not. Humanitarian needs are being met in a generally orderly fashion, with food, clothing, and elemental medical care provided. The quarters are cramped--but they are not hellish. Due process is promised and safe passage guaranteed if deportations are ordered.

But the Katrina catnip tempts politicians who ought to know better.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry coyly deployed it in my interview for CBS News after his face-to-face meeting with Obama in Dallas.

The Republican criticized Obama, as Cuellar did with more vigor, for failing to inspect the immigration mess in the Rio Grande Valley. Then he pivoted to Katrina.

"That's what governors and presidents do. When there is a tragedy, when there is a natural disaster or whether it is a man-made disaster as this one is, that's what presidents do," Perry said. "They show up. They interact and they see for themselves what's going on. If I recall, President Bush got chastised greatly for not showing up in New Orleans when Katrina occurred."

I asked Perry if this situation compared with Katrina. He hesitated before limiting the indictment to a lack of government foresight.

"There are a lot of people who are talking about it in those terms. I think when you look at the potential ... when you see the thousands of individuals that are being displaced, when you...."

Perry paused and took a breath.

"The parallel for me is that when we know a hurricane is coming, we put things in place so that we can deal with it. I have told this administration and others have told this administration for years that this was exactly going to happen."

Perry sent a letter to Obama in May 2012 about a 90 percent year-over-year increase in unaccompanied minors crossing into Texas from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Then, the numbers of minors being detained was 5,200. It is now more than 10 times that size.

The governor said he could see the crisis coming. The White House said the surge of children this year was unforeseen. That's a legitimate difference of opinion with real-world ramifications and political costs. Katrina hyperbole cheapens the debate and obscures the clash over what to do next.

For example, Perry wants Obama to order 1,000 National Guard troops to the border and station Border Patrol agents alongside them in a hybrid military-law-enforcement cordon. He argues the practical and symbolic impact will reverberate through Central America. From our interview:

Perry: I told the president, "You can address this and you can address it very quickly by picking up the phone and directing the Department of Defense to put a thousand National Guard troops on that border." And the message will be sent to South America [sic] very quickly that the border is secure--you cannot send your children because they are not going to be walking across or swimming across or carried across the Rio Grande and stay in the U.S. That is no longer possible.

Major Garrett: What you are saying is Central American countries and parents considering putting their children on these journeys need to see a militarized presence on the U.S.-Mexico border?

Perry: What they need to see is boots on the ground.

Perry then discussed conversations in Dallas with Obama and faith leaders interested in providing the minors temporary housing.

Perry: These people talk back and forth to each other. [Wednesday] with the faith-based groups that monitor the phone calls going back to Central America the message is, "It's great here. They're taking care of us. It's a wonderful environment." That will only cause more to be put on planes and buses and other modes of transportation to come up here. The message needs to be sent clearly that the border is secure and the president can do that. He doesn't need Congress. He can do this.

The White House has rejected deploying National Guard forces, primarily because Obama, as he said in Dallas, does not believe there's a problem apprehending the illegally arriving minors.

"The issue is not that people are evading our enforcement officials," Obama said. "The issue is that we're apprehending them in large numbers. And we're working to make sure that we have sufficient facilities to detain, house, and process them appropriately, while attending to unaccompanied children with the care and compassion that they deserve while they're in our custody."

Obama also addressed the "he can do this" part of Perry's demand for National Guard troops--placing it in the middle of the long-running dispute with GOP congressional leaders over the limits of executive power.

"As I indicated to Governor Perry--he suggested, well, maybe you just need to go ahead and act, and that might convince Republicans that they should go ahead and pass the supplemental. And I had to remind him I'm getting sued right now by [House Speaker John Boehner], apparently, for going ahead and acting instead of going through Congress. Well, here's a good test case."

Obama said he needs Congress's swift approval of $3.7 billion in emergency funds for humanitarian and legal costs associated with detaining and legally reviewing the minors' immigration status.

"This should not be hard to at least get the supplemental done," Obama said. "The question is, are we more interested in politics, or are we more interested in solving the problem?"

I asked Perry what Republicans ought to do about the emergency-funding request. He said Obama has it backward, that he has the authority to enhance border security.

"Here's what I think the American people are looking for the administration to clearly show that they're going to secure the border," Perry said. "We can work with the Border Patrol, National Guard, local law enforcement, and we can secure the border. When that happens, then I think you will have the American people, and in turn their elected officials, substantially more pliable, if you will, to a piece of legislation."

Obama said he needs Congress to grant him new power to speed up deportations for the unaccompanied minors who will not qualify for refugee or humanitarian relief status. Under a 2008 anti-sex-trafficking law, minors outside of Canada and Mexico are guaranteed an immigration hearing before deportation. In the meantime, Obama said he needs funds to house the minors and build the machinery for faster legal reviews and deportations. To Obama, it's Perry who has the sequence backward.

"This is something you say is important, as I do," Obama said in Dallas, speaking to unnamed Republican critics in Congress. "This is an area that you have prioritized, as I have. Don't wait for me to take executive actions when you have the capacity right now to go ahead and get something done. I will sign that billtomorrow. We're going to go ahead and do what we can administratively, but this gives us the tools to do many of the very things that Republicans are seeking."

This is a straightforward disagreement about divided powers, border security, law enforcement, due process, taxpayer funds, and politics. It's playing out over the emotional terrain of our historic sympathy--which has, to be candid, ebbed and flowed--to immigrants, children, and the dispossessed.

Much is at stake. The debate is real. Let it proceed without distorting drivel about Katrina.