Faced with a dramatic increase in unaccompanied children from Central America swarming across the U.S. border, the federal government must offer a swift and compassionate response. The minors are the most vulnerable and helpless migrants, here through no fault of their own. They are innocent pawns of forces they cannot begin to comprehend.
Their treatment, however, must stop short of inciting even larger waves of illegal immigration. This will be no easy trick. International treaties and moral obligation require the government to protect the young migrants and treat them as humanely as possible. But it would be cruel and unfair to send a signal that, once here, unaccompanied minors gain a legal toehold on U.S. soil.
There is no such entitlement, nor is any contemplated. The record of immigration processing in recent years suggests that only a tiny fraction of unaccompanied minors manages to make a case for asylum or resident status.
The numbers in this sudden exodus are striking. Some 47,000 children have been apprehended this fiscal year, more than double the total for all of 2013. The final tally could exceed 90,000.
Because they’re children, they cannot be quickly repatriated. They have to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of arrival. If they have family here, they might be reunited, but most will face deportation hearings.
The Obama administration is scrambling to hire about 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent them. They’ll probably need more. The government has also opened shelters on military bases from Oklahoma to California. Last week, a Senate appropriations panel voted to give the Obama administration an extra $2 billion for the HHS division that houses and cares for the migrant kids.
These are appropriate and timely responses to a humanitarian crisis. The issue should not get caught up in the heated debate over immigration reform, which is said to be dead for the foreseeable future with the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week. That’s a shame, but also the political reality.
The exodus of children should jolt Congress and the White House into awareness that the security of the border is connected to economic stability in the countries to the south. That’s the root of the problem. Doing nothing is not an option.
Working with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the Obama administration has to lead a campaign in the region to counter the perception that sending unaccompanied minors across the U.S. border guarantees their stay here. Seizing the “coyotes” who thrive on human smuggling is another imperative. Central American diplomats say migrant traffickers have spread the false notion that once children cross the border, they’re safe from deportation.
Parents have been duped into believing it because they fear that children will fall prey to the criminal gangs that control cities in Central America, where crime is rampant. They’ll do anything to help them escape recruitment into a life of crime. The perilous trek to the border atop freight trains seems worth the risk when the prospects at home are so dreadful.
Like it or not, the United States must eventually help Central America’s governments defeat the gangs. Job creation and economic growth will undercut the power of the criminals, but that requires making the sort of long-term commitment that Washington seems incapable of today.