The tide of unaccompanied teens and small children with mothers from Central America surging over the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months has put the U.S. government between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If you let the current 57,000 or so unaccompanied minors (not counting another 55,000 moms and kids) stay – at least until a deportation hearing where they will plead for asylum from nongovernmental violence and poverty – what do you do with the next 57,000? Or the next?
The U.S. is scrambling to deal with what President Barack Obama has called a humanitarian crisis. Border Patrol agents and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement are trying to house and process the flood of mostly unaccompanied youths seeking a better life in the United States, away from the poverty, gangs and violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández recently told Politico Magazine that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the influx because of Americans’ insatiable demand for illicit drugs. He also said coyotes exploit a “lack of clarity” about U.S. immigration policies to deceive families both in the United States and in Central America with the notion that the kids can stay “when we know that’s not true.”
But, perhaps it is true. Only time will tell.
Some of the confusion stems from a law President George W. Bush signed in 2008 that prevents unaccompanied minors from being deported to Central America until they appear before an immigration judge. However, that law was aimed at stopping human trafficking, such as the movement of teenage girls for sex slavery.
More confusion comes from an Obama administration policy change in 2012 that allows those who entered the country illegally as children but were here by June 15, 2007, not to face deportation for a two-year period and to be eligible to work or attend school.
That has widely been portrayed in Central America as if you make it, you can stay. And so far, that’s mostly true.
Faced with all this, Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address the pressing issue of unaccompanied youths entering the country, but that almost certainly will not be addressed until after the August recess, which began Saturday.
Hernández says the U.S., Mexican and Central American governments should share responsibility for dealing with the problem. And he implied that some of the billions Obama is requesting should be spent back in the countries from which the children are fleeing.
“A Central America at peace, with less drug violence, and with opportunities, is a great investment for the United States. On the contrary, if they are only investing in border security and not in the source of the problem, in the genesis of the problem, then we will have more of the same,” he told Politico.
He’s right. And U.S. foreign policy in Central America has played a role in weakening democratic governance. But as these governments have increasingly lost control of their societies, the results of their problems are migrating here – and some Central American gang members are said to be following their prey as they move north.
In any case, the U.S. should work with these countries to help stabilize conditions there.
The immediate question is whether these youths should be sent home or housed here until their status can be resolved. A majority of Americans in a recent Associated Press-GfK poll favor changing U.S. law so they can be more quickly deported, using the same standards that apply to Mexican immigrants.
Otherwise, do you keep them in the equivalent of detainment camps for long periods of time? Or release them to relatives and expect them to show up for hearings?
As difficult as conditions back home may be, the U.S. really has little choice. While we might find a way to take in the first 57,000, what about the next? On what grounds could we accept this group and not the next?
It would be better to work with the Central American governments and use some of the money Obama seeks to return them to their home countries under humane conditions.
It also would help if Congress would take immigration reform seriously, controlling our border while dealing with the millions already here illegally.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.