CHARACTER asserts itself in times of crisis. That is certainly the case with the Central American refugee debacle at the U.S. border.
Tens of thousands of Central American children are passing through Mexico into the United States and presenting themselves to immigration officials, with the hope of staying. Some of these kids are escaping horrific violence. Some are simply looking for a way to get into the country to join family members who came there illegally in search of work.
By law, U.S. officials are obliged to give these kids a hearing process to find out whether they can be granted asylum or have legal avenues to be reunited with family in this country. That law was passed by Congress and signed by then-president George W. Bush in 2008. Its intent was to protect children from human trafficking, drug trafficking and other sorts of exploitation. (Refugees from Canada and Mexico are excepted and can be deported immediately).
Will the law be abused? If the border crisis continues to be politicized, that’s a good bet.
The most conspicuous political reaction was the group of protesters that recently halted three buses filled with migrant children in Murrieta, Calif. As Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, aptly described the scene, "the protesters, to justify taunting a group of defenceless kids, grotesquely cloaked their hatred in ‘patriotism’ by chanting ‘USA! USA! USA!’ over and over again."
Predictably, U.S. President Barack Obama has been painted by Republican politicians and conservative media as the villain of the piece. Texas Gov. Rick Perry even suggested the crisis is possibly part of some conspiracy on Obama’s part.
In fact, Obama is asking Congress to authorize $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the situation. The money would pay for 40 judges and their staffs to speed up the cases in backlogged immigration courts, overtime for border agents, space to warehouse migrants as they are processed, increased aerial surveillance, efforts to pursue human smugglers who are leading some of the people here and outreach to discourage parents in Central America from letting their children attempt the journey, among other measures.
Republicans can give Obama the necessary funds to manage the crisis. Or they can continue to play political games and possibly throw the lives of already traumatized children into more peril.
The Obama administration is far from blameless. For months, it all but ignored warnings as advocates and border agents noted the increasing numbers of children arriving in the past year.
Still, America’s larger unresolved immigration problem was not Obama’s making. He can hardly be held responsible for Congress’s failure to enact direly needed immigration reforms. The House Republicans have made a point of quashing any such bill. Nor has the president been a soft touch on undocumented immigrants. Under his watch, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ramped up deportations.
The test of responsible leaders in each party will be whether they defend these children’s rights to a fair hearing in the face of the opposition of antiimmigrant demagogues. Our response must be guided by facts.
Let’s start with a document recently released by the Department of Homeland Security. It notes where most of the children travelling alone are coming from and why. For the Guatemalan children, many are from rural areas, suggesting increasingly intractable poverty is their motivator. Yet the top three home cities of the children apprehended this year are in Honduras: San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa (the capital) and Juticalpa. All three are major cities overrun by drug violence, where teens are routinely forced to join gangs or be shot. San Pedro has the highest murder rate in the world.
It’s also fair to acknowledge the U.S. link to that bloodshed: our illegal drug consumption, particularly heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. Honduran parents are risking that their children might die walking and riding atop trains to head north, only because that’s preferable to a violent death in their home city.
Most of the children who show up at the border will not qualify for asylum in the U.S. And many will not meet current qualifications to legally unite with family here. A test of America’s virtue will be how they are cared for and how their cases are managed, as well as how closely they are tracked so they don’t swell the ranks of America’s undocumented immigrants. And in the rush to make this political "problem" fade, we must never lose sight of the fact that the migrants in question are children.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for the Kansas City Star.
— The Kansas City Star