The recent cascade of Central American children crossing the Rio Grande and surrendering as fast as they can to U.S. border patrol officers — in full knowledge that they won’t immediately be sent back — has confounded our already stunted national debate on immigration. Republicans blame the onset of border-crossers on what they say is the Obama administration’s leniency toward immigrants — even though the administration has set a record for deportations. The president would like to enable undocumented immigrants who’ve been here for a while to gain legal status and, eventually, become citizens. The flood of Central American refugees has complicated the politics of legalization, however, particularly since Republicans say the mere prospect of letting immigrants remain only encourages others to come.
Both sides in this debate report that the organizations that smuggle people across Mexico and into Texas are telling Central Americans that the United States won’t send back unescorted children. That’s not true – at least, not invariably. When undocumented minors show up, the government usually places them with relatives already here, but they’re still subject to deportation unless they can demonstrate that their lives will be endangered if they return.
Two things are missing from this discussion, however. The first is the conditions in the nations these children are fleeing. The second is how traditionally and fundamentally American these children’s stories are.
No mystery need enshroud the reasons why the children are coming. Central America’s nations are among the most violent in the world. In April, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that in 2012 Honduras had the highest murder rate of any nation — indeed, its murder rate was nearly twice that of any other country. El Salvador had the fourth-highest homicide rate and Guatemala the fifth. Across the region, gang violence has turned once-peaceful neighborhoods into shooting galleries. Small wonder that parents are scraping up the resources to get their children out of harm’s way — even if the journey through Mexico is itself the epitome of harm’s way.
In “The Beast,” a remarkable book first published in Spanish in 2010 and translated into English only last year, journalist Oscar Martinez chronicled the treacherous odysseys that Central Americans undertake as they cross Mexico. The immigrants whose journeys he relates are routinely swindled and misled by guides. They are taken hostage en route until they can come up with ransoms. Four out of five women are sexually abused. The “beasts” of the title are the trains on which the travelers ride — not in boxcars, as American hobos did in earlier times, but on the roofs, from which the weak or weary periodically slip to their deaths or dismemberments.
And still, they make the journey, not because they’re oblivious to the dangers of going but because they’re all too conscious of the dangers of staying behind. In paying smugglers to bring their children north, U.S.-based parents doubtless hope they’ve ensured a safer passage than those Martinez documents. Even if they have, the children surely endure what must be dangerous and arduous journeys.
And in so doing, they re-enact the most American of stories. Throughout our history, people have come here not only because the United States offers greater opportunity than they could experience in their homeland. They have also come here for the simple reason that they could not survive if they stayed at home. The Pilgrims came escaping persecution, at a time when those labeled heretics were routinely tortured; the Irish came rather than starve during the great famine of the 1840s; the Germans arrived after the revolutions of 1848 failed and the Prussian and other autocracies began to round them up; the Jews came after the czar decreed open season on them in 1881. People came to America, often as not, because they were fleeing for their lives.
Throughout much of our history, we welcomed them. Our openness defined us; we were a refuge among nations. Throughout some of our history, however, we did not. At the insistence of a largely anti-Semitic State Department, Jews attempting to flee the Nazis were sent back.
And now come the children of Central America — encouraged by the smugglers’ misrepresentations, to be sure, but also in a flight for their lives every bit as genuine as those that brought the Pilgrims and the Irish and the Germans and the Jews to our shores. Sending them back poses a threat not just to them but, even more fundamentally, to our nation’s raison d'etre.