The recent surge of migrant children from Central America has brought out the worst in our polarized political-media-industrial complex, which in turn is stirring up a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, as demonstrated by the recent protests in Southern California. It's time to take a deep breath, put partisanship aside, and focus on the actual problem, which is a humanitarian crisis involving kids.
Over the last decade the impoverished countries of Central America's "Northern Triangle" -- Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras -- have collapsed into violent anarchy. Always unstable places, things have gotten worse lately for two interrelated reasons. First, weak institutions have fostered the rise of violent and powerful transnational gangs, most prominently the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18. Second, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have moved operations south, so the Northern Triangle countries are now a key transit point in the supply chain delivering Colombian drugs to Mexican traffickers.
It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that the Northern Triangle countries are now among the most violent on Earth, as the gangs fight for dominance and savagely "recruit" kids to join their ranks, with weak and corrupt governments unable to protect them. Indeed, one city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula, is literally the most violent place in the world, with more murders per capita than even Mogadishu. And San Pedro Sula is home to the largest number of kids picked up by U.S. Border Patrol this year. According to a recent study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 60 percent of these kids likely will require protection, such as asylum or refugee status. In other words, many of these kids are literally fleeing for their lives.
Meanwhile, U.S. laws have changed in a way that has encouraged kids to come here, as opposed to other countries in the region. While the numbers of people from the Northern Triangle seeking asylum in Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, and Costa Rica have spiked by 435 percent, the U.S. remains the biggest draw, particularly since passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).
Until 2008, all minors apprehended by Border Patrol were treated basically the same: subject to summary deportation after a brief interview. But in 2008 the TVPRA sought to reduce child sex trafficking by strengthening due-process protections for kids arriving from places other than Mexico and Canada. Under the law, kids are placed in formal removal proceedings before an immigration judge, where they can raise arguments for why they should be granted asylum, or otherwise be allowed to stay.
The problem, though, is that the immigration-court system is woefully underfunded and backlogged. As a result, the formal removal process can take years. Under the law, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) must care for these kids while their cases are proceeding, usually by placing kids in foster care or with relatives. Once that happens, many kids don't show up for their hearings and then melt into the undocumented population already here.
As a result, there have been few deportations of Northern Triangle kids since 2008, and the people smugglers capitalize on this by telling families that after the dangerous journey through Mexico, kids will be given permission to stay in the U.S. Because of the problems in our system, the smugglers are, to some extent, right.
This week President Obama requested $3.7 billion for more immigration judges to reduce backlogs, and more resources to house and care for kids once they are here. The president is on the right track, but this is just a drop in the bucket, given the likelihood that many more kids are on their way and the fact that our immigration-court system will take years to fix and adequately resource.
Some would say that instead of providing more funds to care for children, we should crack down by amending the law to allow for summary deportations, and by dramatically increasing our enforcement capabilities at the border.
This reflects neither the reality of the problem nor our values as a nation. Reducing due-process protections for kids fleeing the most violent place on Earth won't solve this problem and will only result in kids being harmed. What's needed are the resources to implement the TVPRA's requirements in an expeditious and humane way: more judges, lawyers for unrepresented kids so they can effectively make claims for asylum, and resources for caring for them and for making sure kids appear for their hearings and don't disappear into the undocumented population.
Moreover, while strengthening border security is a good idea and should be part of immigration reform, it is not a solution to this crisis. This is a regional problem, and it requires a regional solution: not only strengthening institutions, fighting gangs, and protecting kids in Northern Triangle countries but working closely with Mexico and other countries to crack down on people-smuggling organizations, and engaging with international organizations like the UNHCR to foster a regional approach to refugee protection that reduces burdens on the U.S.
Ultimately, this is a regional humanitarian crisis that must be addressed intelligently, comprehensively, and with compassion for the vulnerable kids involved. Panicked partisanship and media muckraking will only make it worse. It's time for cooler heads to prevail, and for sensible regional solutions to take hold.
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