06/11/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Immigration Reform: Building Fences With Shadows or Bridges of Hope and Dreams?

The Southwest is a place of great opportunity, enchantment, and grandeur, and yet, also a place of poverty and inequality in the United States. Through its children, it is also a place that will play an expanding and critically important role in either the successes or failures of our nation. In fact, the border region (defined here as the seven states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado) accounts for:

• Nearly 30 percent of America's children;
• More than 90 percent of the last decade's (2000-2010) increase in our nation's child population;
• More than half of America's Hispanic child population;
• Nearly one-third of American Indian and Alaskan Native children in the United States; and,
• More than 40 percent of America's Asian child population.

We can make the right investments now to take advantage of the region's greatest resource, our nation's children, or we can fail them and our future. It is our choice to make and now is the time.

Unfortunately, we presently are doing quite poorly by these kids. Using data over 16 different indicators, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF)'s KIDS COUNT 2012 ranked the 50 states by child outcomes and five of the seven southwestern states placed among the 10 worst in the country. Although Utah and Colorado ranked above the national average, California (41st), Texas (44th), Arizona (46th), Nevada (48th), and New Mexico (49th) all were among the 10 worst states based on key child indicators, such as child poverty, infant mortality, and high school graduation rates.

In addition to these five southwestern states, the other states that rank among the worst were the five southeastern states of Arkansas (42nd), South Carolina (43rd), Alabama (45th), Louisiana (47th), and Mississippi (50th). There is one common theme among these 10 states that plays a major role in their poor performance: they all invest fewer resources in their children than the national average.

As Thomas Gais at the Rockefeller Institute of Government points out:

The increasing number of children and the problems they face in the Southwest [and the South] might have a better chance at alleviation if states within the region strongly supported public programs designed to benefit children, such as social services, educational institutions, income support programs, and health programs. But states in [these regions] tend not to support such programs at the same levels found in most other states.

For children, they are, by definition, dependent upon adults for their well-being. It is simple common sense that the investments we choose to make or not make in them have enormous implications. In research for the Foundation for Child Development by William O'Hare at AECF and Mark Mather and Genevieve Dupuis at the Population Research Center, a strong correlation clearly exists between the well-being of children and state decisions to make investments in children.

As the study finds:

Public investments from federal, state, and local governments matter... When states invest in programs that benefit children and families and contribute to their well-being, children and families are better off. When states cut or neglect investing in these programs, the nation is worse off.

At the midpoint along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is El Paso, Texas, which sits at the intersection of three states (Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua) and two countries. Like most of the border, El Paso has a relatively young population, as almost one-third of its citizens are children. Unfortunately, over 30 percent of those children live in poverty and about 1 in 4 lack health insurance coverage.

El Paso also sits at the center of much of the debate around the immigration bill currently being debated in Congress. President Barack Obama spoke to the nation about the need for comprehensive immigration reform from Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso over a year ago. In that speech, the President spoke specifically to some of the key issues of importance to children and families. As he said:

I don't believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families. That's not right. That's not who we are. We can do better than that.

And we should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents. We should stop denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military. And that's why we need to pass the DREAM Act.

For children, the importance of immigration reform cannot be understated, although the vast majority of those impacted are actually U.S. citizen children. According to Don Hernandez and Wendy Cervantes in research for the Foundation for Child Development and First Focus, "Children in immigrant families account for nearly one-fourth (24 percent) of all children as of 2010, and the vast majority (88 percent) are U.S. citizens. In fact, children of immigrants account for nearly the entire growth in the U.S. child population between 1990 and 2008."

Unfortunately, progress on immigration and the legislation's impact on children is mixed. On the positive side, the Senate bill includes the DREAM Act and a bipartisan amendment by Senators Al Franken and Charles Grassley "to improve immigration enforcement policies to protect child well-being and promote family unity by ensuring that parents' are able to make decisions regarding their child's care at the time of apprehension, while in detention, and prior and following removal." Other amendments by Senators Mazie Hirono and Diane Feinstein made further progress related to protections and safety of unaccompanied minors and "to deter, detect, and prevent child trafficking." These provisions would help children throughout the United States, but disproportionately those living in the Southwest.

Although the Senate bill gets a number of things right by kids, it simultaneously fails kids by imposing a long-term ban on other children's services, such as health, nutrition, and income supports. The Senate immigration bill, for example, would impose bans on such services for immigrant children for up to 13 years. For a child with cancer, asthma, or in need of glasses, they simply cannot wait a decade and a half to get the health services they need. That would be, in effect, a ban on such critical services for children throughout their childhood. Fortunately, Senators Richard Blumenthal, Jay Rockefeller, and Hirono are all working on critical amendments that address some of the bill's major shortcomings for children.

Meanwhile, others are working to make matters worse for children. The House of Representatives, for example, voted just this past week in favor of an amendment by Rep. Steve King to prohibit the Administration's continued implementation of the Deferred Action of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) action, which the Obama Administration has used to permit qualifying young people (DREAMers) who entered the United States as undocumented immigrants during their childhood to remain lawfully in the U.S. for two years and obtain work authorization during that period.

Moreover, although the legislation would spend billions of dollars building fences and walls along the U.S.-Mexico border and dramatically increasing border control and enforcement efforts, Senator John Cornyn and others are insisting that even more funding most be dedicated to enforcement, fences, and drones before any of the positive immigration reforms in the bill could be implemented. This emphasis on "border security" comes despite the fact that there are billions spent annually on creating a record numbers of Border Patrol agents, border fences, and drones.

As the President points out, the result is that:

Over the past two and a half years, we've seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, 64 percent more weapons than ever before. And even as we have stepped up patrols, apprehensions along the border have been cut by nearly 40 percent from two years ago. That means far fewer people are attempting to cross the border illegally.

And also, despite a lot of breathless reports that have tagged places like El Paso as dangerous, violent crime in southwest border counties has dropped by a third. El Paso and other cities and towns along this border are consistently among the safest in the nation.

In other words, despite Senator Jeff Sessions's constant calls for increased spending on "border security", we currently have more border patrol than ever in history, annual deportations are at record levels, and the border is more secure than it ever has been. In addition, the border is officially the safest place in the country, and Senator Sessions should be aware that El Paso is by far a far safer place to live than in the State of Alabama. El Paso is, according to federal data reported by CQ Press, the "safety city in America" while Birmingham, Alabama, has one of the highest crime rates.

Thus, we should all be asking whether we really need billions of dollars in even more spending on fences and barriers or could we be investing those dollars on improving the lives and outcomes of children along the border and across this country, including in 45th ranked Alabama?

According to Rep. Beto O'Rourke, El Paso's congressman and life-long border resident:

The border is really as safe as it's ever been.... If you can step back from it and realize that as Mexico comes up, as we stop seeing it as a threat, that whole border area could be so beautiful. It's just tragic that you have [billions of dollars] being devoted to more walls that we're going to be hopefully tearing down in the next ten years because we'll realize that it's one of the most foolish things we've ever spent money on in this country's history.

We must understand that bridges and investments in children are clearly a better path to our future than fences and barriers. It is the latter that are wasteful and detrimental to our future.

For all of us, especially children, we must do better. We must strive to adopt a set of policies that provide the opportunity for all children, regardless of immigration status, to fulfill their hopes and dreams and not a set of punitive policies that have no other impact other than to harm children. Denying a child with cancer access to health coverage or a child living in poverty with the help they need to be successful can only have devastating consequences.

As a result, our nation's children stand at a crossroads and the choices we make are complicated but critical. As AECF's President and CEO Patrick McCarthy said upon release of the KIDS COUNT data:

We can choose to watch the promise of the American Dream slip away. Or, we can choose to come together as a nation, in a spirit of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, and commit ourselves to investing in today's young families to improve the future for children, the next generation and our nation.