The politics surrounding the surge of migrant children at our Southern border are predictable: Republicans blast President Obama; Obama asks Congress for more money to deal with the problem; immigration advocates insist on fewer deportations.
But in the middle of that clichéd drama are gut-wrenching stories about children — including some who are quite young — undertaking a dangerous, lonely journey either alone or in the company of unreliable strangers. It’s hard to fathom.
How awful must conditions be at home for impoverished parents to pay $6,000 for criminal smugglers to take a seven- or eight-year-old child hundreds of miles away? How desperate must a young child be to get on the road alone to try to find Mom and Dad in another country?
News accounts tell those pitiful stories. Ten-year-old Angel and his 7-year-old sister, Dulce, longed to join their parents in the Los Angeles area. They traveled by bus with relatives from Chimaltenango, Guatemala, to the Rio Grande, but their adult kin left them to cross the river with other youngsters.
A 14-year-old boy from Honduras said that his parents were dead and he was hoping to find an aunt in New Orleans. Then there was 11-year-old Nodwin, who said he left Honduras by himself — nearly drowning in the Rio Grande — to get away from criminal gangs, which enforce their rule through torture and rape.
The United States, which thinks of itself as exceptional and indispensable, has an obligation to do what it can to help these children, whose plight has rightly been termed a humanitarian crisis. We can do better than immediate deportations.
In fact, a law intended to curb human trafficking that was passed during the administration of George W. Bush mandates that those children be given deportation hearings to consider their requests for refugee status. Meanwhile, they must be given food, shelter and reasonable accommodations. (Under the same law, unaccompanied minors from contiguous countries, Canada and Mexico, are immediately turned back if they are caught.)
The law may well have contributed to the stunning surge of children — some of them as young as kindergarteners — trying to enter the country illegally. More than 50,000 children have tried to enter the U.S. in the last eight months, officials say. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three countries that account for most of the refugees, the law has apparently been misinterpreted by parents and children as a policy of broad leniency toward undocumented minors.
In addition to that misunderstanding, kids are propelled by poverty and violence. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world; Guatemala, the fifth highest. Who could blame them for trying to escape that?
But the crush of refugees has created a political embarrassment for President Obama. In a futile effort to garner GOP support for comprehensive immigration reform, the president has pursued a tough deportation policy toward adults, ensnaring not just felons, but also some undocumented workers who committed minor traffic offenses. The policy hasn’t won over GOP critics, but it has alienated some of Obama’s Latino supporters.
With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are using the refugee crisis as a sledgehammer, insisting the president has broken the law. Sarah Palin has gone so far as to call for Obama’s impeachment. None of the president’s critics acknowledge that he is following a law that several of them supported just a few years ago.
Under the searing pressure, Obama has called for billions to pay for more guards, drones and detention facilities; he has also suggested that he would support a change in the law that would quicken the deportation of unaccompanied minors.
That’s a mistake. The United States cannot solve Central America’s problems of poverty and violence, nor can it take tens of thousands of undocumented children. But it can take those who would qualify for legitimate refugee status.
The children deserve their deportation hearings, and the president should stand steadfast to make sure they get them.
Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/MCT