Along the southern border, particularly in Texas, a rising influx of young unauthorized migrants crossing the border with their parents — or, more alarmingly, alone — has overwhelmed the Border Patrol and sent the federal government scurrying for a coordinated response. Its first action was the right one: the creation of a top-level task force including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to care for the unaccompanied children.
It is unclear what will happen next to stem the flow or to resolve the uncertain status of the young arrivals, many of whom may have legitimate claims to stay as refugees. But administration officials, custodians of a tenacious deportation policy, deserve credit for recognizing that this is not a border-security crisis but a humanitarian one, fueled by growing violence and instability in the countries feeding the influx: Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees issued an alarming paper last month affirming what The New York Times and other news organizations, notably the magazine Mother Jones, have also reported: that spiraling criminal violence and fear of gangs have sent thousands, including many more younger children and girls, on a desperate journey.
The United Nations noted that the number of children traveling alone has doubled each year since 2011, and that 60,000 are expected to reach the United States this fiscal year. The problem, though, is not confined to this country; the report found that asylum requests by Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking refuge in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize has soared by 435 percent.
The crisis comes at a bad moment in America’s stalemated immigration debate, with Republicans gleefully seizing on a situation seemingly tailored to fit their false narrative, that any reform short of an aggressively militarized border will create yet another magnet to pull more of the wretched poor over our border, and that all the chaos in the system is President Barack Obama’s fault.
This was Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: "The recent surge of children and teenagers from Central America showing up at our southern border is an administration-made disaster, and now President Obama is calling in FEMA to mitigate the damage. Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally."
He added: "Enforcement at the border and in the interior of the U.S. is crucial to end these kinds of situations, not another bureaucratic task force."
Like other naysayers in his party, he clings to a fantasy that controlling migration is a simple matter of boots and barbed wire.
Far more compelling is the evidence that young people are being pushed out of their homes, not pulled. They are fleeing for their lives. They may know nothing about perceived shifts in deportation policies or programs like the one deferring deportations for young immigrants, for which none of them would qualify anyway. But they do know that they face great danger by staying home.
The administration’s first task is to meet the pressing needs of these traumatized children: to shelter them, reunite them with families when possible, give them legal representation and properly assess the chances of seeking refugee status or asylum, while working with the governments abroad to solve the root causes of violence and instability. This emergency requires a compassionate and reasoned response, commensurate with its complexity.
Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform — tightening border security, repairing the immigration flow and placing millions on a path to legal status — should acknowledge that the ambitious legislation they seek won’t erase the problems fueling the crisis abroad. It won’t curb the murder rate in Tegucigalpa or undo the legacy of oppression and instability in Latin America. But critics of reform should not pretend that they own the answers. The view from the Republicans’ America — locked down, in a gated country, hands washed of the migrant problem — is a fantasy about law and order. But it is not a solution.
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