Nine months ago, in The Wall Street Journal, a former Bush administration official described the sorry plight of children now streaming northward across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Hundreds of children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are showing up daily, their numbers having increased in recent months as violence and poverty have spiked upward in their home countries.
They are overwhelming border patrol stations and raising concerns about health and safety, not to mention the dilemma of locating their parents. The Department of Homeland Security is scrambling, setting up space at military bases in Oklahoma, Texas and California to keep the children until their futures can be decided.
Estimates are that 90,000 children will attempt to cross into the United States this year.
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Julie Myers Wood, who co-authored the Journal op-ed with attorney Wendy Young, was head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2006 to 2008. Young heads Kids in Need of Defense.
The two women raised the alarm about the increasing numbers of children at our border. And they pointed out that in immigration proceedings, nobody — including children — is guaranteed legal representation. That fact can have dire consequences for a child.
“We’ve seen 5-year-old immigrants in front of a U.S. judge, about to be sent back into harm’s way,” they wrote.
Their piece was a thoughtful, nuanced appeal to the conscience of America. “For a nation founded on the principles of due process and access to justice, we are grievously violating both when it comes to deporting undocumented immigrant children,” they argued.
Contrast that to the unbending vitriol on immigration that helped unseat U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
David Brat defeated Cantor in the Republican primary by running on ignorance and denial. Brat’s vague slogans about “securing” the border and screeds about “amnesty” are familiar bromides by now, the talking points of people who know little about immigration in an attempt to court voters who know even less.
The government can’t and won’t lock down a border that is nearly 2,000 miles long and traverses mountains, water and desert. Nor will the United States curtail cross-border traffic with Mexico, the nation’s third largest trading partner at $507 billion in commercial transactions in 2013.
To suggest that curtailing undocumented immigration is a matter of border control belittles the massive amount of technology and manpower already in place for security. A far more constructive approach to the problem would be making it feasible for migrants to arrive legally and stay temporarily to take jobs that Americans will not do.
Amnesty? That’s more crazy talk. What has been proposed by a bipartisan bill (known by shorthand as the Gang of Eight Bill) passed by the Senate is a 13-year route to citizenship for only some immigrants who are illegally in the country now, including a long list of qualifications they must meet. There is no fast track or overnight guarantee for anyone — not even these desperate Central American children.
Debunking the nutty talk that always surrounds immigration reform is a never-ending but necessary task. Dawdling and ignorantly blathering about immigration is exactly the non-response that keeps the United States unready for situations such as this humanitarian crisis. For that is, in large part, what Border Patrol is dealing with at the moment.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, outside of countries at war. Gang violence in El Salvador is escalating too. Some of these kids are running for their lives. Others are trying to reunite with parents who left them years ago to find work in the United States. That’s where increased security at the border and ICE crackdowns have actually worsened some aspects of illegal immigration. People illegally here can’t cross back and forth as they once did to visit family.
Several hundred children and mothers with infants are turning themselves in daily to U.S. Border Patrol. It’s rightly being called a crisis. And, as with other aspects of immigration reform, situations like this won’t be resolved by the simple-minded bleating of a populist candidate whose 15 minutes of fame are ticking.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.
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