Our View: The international crisis of unaccompanied migrant children at U.S. border

June 7, 2014 

Mexico Immigration Families

Three-year-old Perla Calidono of Copan, Honduras, plays at the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, earlier this month.

CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN — The Associated Press

President Barack Obama on Monday ordered the federal government to respond to the massive numbers of unaccompanied children trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, calling it an “urgent humanitarian crisis.”

Indeed, it is. An urgent, international humanitarian crisis.

Thousands of children and babies, alone or with their mothers, are swarming into the U.S. along Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Many of them are coming from Central America, so many the U.S. doesn’t know what to do with them all.

This is just part of the picture, however. The rest includes thousands, maybe millions more people south of the border trying to escape desperation and death. In a very real way, the people fleeing Central America are war refugees. While there’s no formal conflict, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are some of the most violent places on earth. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations. Gangs, many populated by gangsters deported from California, and drug cartels increasingly make this one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

Of course, that’s been true for some time and doesn’t explain a sudden surge – from 13,625 in 2012 to 24,668 last year – in children traveling north on their own. Homeland Security officials expect 90,000 unaccompanied minors to be detained by border patrol this year, maybe more. And those are just the kids caught; it doesn’t include the many stranded alone in Mexico’s dangerous border towns.

More likely, the migration is a result of ambivalent immigration policy that is sending mixed signals abroad. While the Obama administration has deported a record 2 million people, the administration has also extended a compassionate arm to undocumented children. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a widespread belief in Central America that if kids can survive the treacherous journey and get across that border somehow, they will be allowed to stay.

This is no less a global tragedy than what’s happening in Syria and Sudan – a crisis that United States’ flawed immigration policy doesn’t have the power to fix alone, even if Congress miraculously found the will to vote on a reform plan that addresses the issues of today.

Obama did what he could last week by ordering the Department of Homeland Security to provide special services to the unaccompanied minors who were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has turned the job over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which regularly houses displaced people. The children will be housed at least temporarily on military bases in Texas and in California at Port Hueneme in Ventura County.

Many of the families that have been detained, however, have been transported to other states such as Arizona for processing or released into the U.S. pending action from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is not likely to dispel the rumor that there’s sanctuary to be found in the U.S.

The president’s order isn’t a solution at all, just a half-measure to deal with the immediate crisis. Without a clear, smart policy from the U.S. and without pressure from the international community on countries from which the immigrants are fleeing, it will get worse. More families and children on their own will leave their homes for a long, dangerous journey during which they will be prey to human traffickers, criminals, disease and injury.

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