Child Refugees from Central America Need Protection, Not Deportation

535766312_f8164e4c96_oThe reasons why so many unaccompanied children from Central American nations are trying to make their way to the United States are not simple. There are the abysmally high murder rates, escalating gang violence, and grinding poverty which prevail in some Central American countries. There are the family ties which some Central American families already have to the United States. And there are the rumors these families have heard (some true, some not) about the relatively generous policies of the United States when dealing with unaccompanied migrant children. In sorting through the sometimes shrill rhetoric which surrounds this politically volatile issue, it is important to keep in mind that these “push” and “pull” factors are not mutually exclusive.

Contrary to the claims of some nativists in Congress, for instance, what is happening cannot be simplistically attributed to an outbreak of “lawlessness” and “lax” immigration enforcement which is inexorably drawing Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border. The very title of a June 25 hearing by the House Judiciary Committee exemplifies this one-dimensional perspective: “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors.” Missing from this distorted title is any acknowledgement that people are not only pulled to other countries, but pushed out of their home countries as well.

Put differently, the decision to leave one’s home country and the decision to travel to a particular destination country are not necessarily the same. For instance, it is clear that many Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan families have decided that the time has come to get out of harm’s way. That is why growing numbers of both adults and children from those countries are showing up not just in the United States, but also in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize. In other words, conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have reached a tipping point, and more people are ready to jump ship. However, where they go is a different matter.

For some people, having family members who already live in the destination country is the most important factor. Social ties are immensely important in finding a place to stay, not to mention navigating an unfamiliar landscape and possibly an unfamiliar language. For other people, the key consideration is the availability of jobs. There’s no point in traveling to another country if there is no way to sustain oneself. And still others choose a destination country on the basis of the perceived “friendliness” of its immigration or law-enforcement system. Paying a smuggler to lead you to another country is of little value if the policy of that country is to immediately imprison and then expel anyone who crosses the border without authorization, regardless of humanitarian considerations.

The Central Americans now coming to the United States in growing numbers are most likely motivated by more than one of these factors. Many believe they will be safer in the U.S than in their country. Many have family already here. Some have heard that there are jobs available—especially service jobs. And many have heard that no matter how small the chances, some migrants do get to stay in the United States—and that children in particular have a chance to at least tell their story to a judge. In other words, these migrants believe that the United States is, for whatever combination of reasons, a land of greater opportunity and freedom than the countries they are leaving behind. In the broadest sense, this is why immigrants have always come here.

In deciding how best to respond to the current surge in unauthorized immigration from Central America—particularly of unaccompanied children—we must ask ourselves what the best way is to address a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. Do we show compassion to people who are fleeing their homelands and coming to the country they think holds the greatest promise of a better life? Or do we lock them all up and then kick them all out, leaving them to whatever fate might befall them back home?

The truth is that many of the children and adults from Central America who are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border right now are refugees. The children in particular are being sent here by parents who believe that the children are in imminent danger. Given that being smuggled into the United States can itself end in death, it stands to reason that conditions must be extremely bad for Central American parents to send their children on such a risky journey. Still, we could follow the nativist prescription for this crisis and send them all back home to gangs, violence, and government inaction. But that would be a brutal response that would not only jeopardize the lives of the children, but would dehumanize and degrade us a nation that was built by immigrants.

Photo by Ferran Jordà.

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  • James Leonard Park

    An orderly immigration policy could take all such factors into account. But the place to apply for admission into the USA is the embassy or consulate of the USA in the country of origin. Instead of spending many days and lots of money trying to get into the USA without permission, those who have the best reasons for being admitted can put all of the facts on paper and explain them to the proper immigration officials in their home countries. Most will be turned down, just as they will eventually be sent back to their homelands if they come into the USA without permission. But those with the strongest cases for being admitted will be allowed to emigrate to America.

    • InAtl

      You can’t apply for asylum at a consulate in your home country, only at the border or in the U.S. You can apply for refugee status, but again, not from your home country, but from a 3rd country that you don’t have roots in. Hardly a viable alternative. So no they won’t be allowed to emigrate to America.

      • James Leonard Park

        All useful elaboration and clarification.
        You and others concerned might consider joining
        the Facebook Group called:
        Immigration Reform: Changing U.S. Laws.

    • MdeG

      If we had a functional immigration system, your observations would be true. Routine, lawful migration would be available to people on a reasonably affordable and expeditious basis, and people who applied would have some noticeable chance of being approved. The reality now is quite different. I’m a family sponsor, and my relatives are in one of the Central American countries that is the source of many of the current child migrants.

      How the legal system “works,” if one can use that word: You fill out a raft of paperwork, much of which has to be renewed at short intervals, requiring days off from work, repeated fees, etc. You pay an application fee that’s the equivalent of half a year’s pay. I don’t mean half a year’s spare change, I mean your whole pay for six months. The US charges flat dollar rates for immigration processing, and they’re uniform worldwide — an injustice in itself. You wait for a period of years; one of my family members is at 8 years right now, with around 2 1/2 more to go. And your chances of success are minuscule, certainly under 5% and most probably under 2% for ordinary honest working folks who self-petition.

      Paying a coyote costs quite a lot more. However, the years of waiting aren’t there. And your chances of getting to the US are a lot higher. If you have a family member who is in immediate danger, trying to use the formal system can feel like an invitation to death. People whose relatives are under active threat of some kind cannot afford to keep them hidden for the years of waiting. They certainly can’t afford to have them seen in the long line outside the US Embassy. (Cases I’ve heard of involved people who’d been inadvertent witnesses to gang murders; the people hadn’t done anything wrong, but knew they could be identified by the gang and expected to be murdered themselves.)

      • Jac

        How do I become a sponsor or help?

        • Veronique Elizabeth

          I, too, want an answer to this. My son is in college. I have a room for a mother and child. How can we help? If you find the answer, please share!

      • blondeeegirly .

        I want to help. Where can I find info to help a family or foster children with no family to go too?

  • Malhotra Ashok

    The unaccompanied children are not immigrants. They are refugees running away from terror and no child anywhere in the world is an illegal except in sick minds. The face that a small country like Lebanon, much poorer and 1000 times smaller than USA size has hosted more than a million refugees from Syria recently shows how easy it is for America to do the same, perhaps with advice from a few from Lebanon if necessary.

  • Malhotra Ashok
  • Malhotra Ashok

    A Precise and incisive international opnion on this issue is here

  • EmpressL

    NOPE! You can only fool some of the people some of the time:
    Only 27% said an increase in violent crime in Central America is the reason for the recent wave of unaccompanied children coming to the border, while 58% said the belief that the American government will grant amnesty to undocumented children is causing the crisis.

    Poll: 77% of Americans want illegal aliens sent home

    77% said they want the illegals returned

    77% want illegals sent home

    77% of Americans – including 86% of Republicans – believe undocumented immigrants threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs, according to the poll.