The Face of a Child

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: MEXICO-MIGRATION -Something strange is going on along the United States’ southern border.

Thousands of children, most unaccompanied by adult relatives, are crossing from Mexico and immediately turning themselves in to the Border Patrol.

These children are not illegal Mexican immigrants. In fact, the vast majority are not from Mexico at all. Most come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They have travelled many hundreds of miles, faced enormous danger, and endured extreme hardship in hope of finding safety within America and being reunited with family members there.

Border Patrol Riverine Unit Rescues Child Stranded on Rio GrandeUnder current law, the Border Patrol is required to take child migrants who aren’t from Mexico into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (a part of the Department of Health and Human Services). The law tasks HHS with either finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long-term foster care.

Once this is done the child’s case slowly works its way through the immigration court system. The problem is that immigration workers have become completely overwhelmed by a sudden rise in the number of child migrants crossing the U.S. border.

The Obama administration claims that 47,017 unaccompanied children, from all countries, were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the first eight months of fiscal year 2014.

This represents a 90% increase from the previous year. And here is where the problems begin.

The laws passed by Congress under the Bush administration put Border Patrol agents in charge of screening immigrant children, and holding them for up to 72 hours before they are transferred to HHS.

But this diverts the Border agents from their other duties.

[The] Border Patrol’s job isn’t to deal with immigrant children, but rather to catch criminals crossing the border.

Child detention centerSimilarly, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has neither the staff nor the facilities to adequately care for all of these children, many of whom are quite traumatized by their recent ordeals. Once the child has been either placed in foster care or a detention centre, their case begins working its way through the immigration courts system, a process that may take more than two years due to a lack of immigration judges and a mounting backlog of cases.

In the meantime these children are often housed under appalling conditions. Their suffering and hardship should melt even the hardest hearts.

What is to be done about this situation? As I see it, there are three possible ways of addressing the problem: dealing with 1) the current symptoms, 2) the root causes, or 3) the actual consequences.

1) Dealing with the current symptoms means stopping the influx of these child migrants crossing the border. Some have called for sealing off the border entirely. But this is practically impossible considering the many miles of isolated and even mountainous terrain that would have to be covered.

House Speaker John Boehner has suggested calling out the National Guard to patrol the border.  But that doesn’t really make sense. What are these armed troops going to do –shoot these children if they dare to step across the border? We need to keep in mind that

We are not talking about war. We are talking about children—many younger than 10—who have experienced horrible conditions in their home countries and on the journey, and who are alone and scared.

2) Addressing to the root causes is ideally the right thing to do. But without a massive effort to effect fundamental changes on an enormous scale (something probably well beyond the U.S.’s ability) it will not change the current situation. Nevertheless, the U. S. should take responsibility for its role in the creation of this problem. That’s right. The problem didn’t just happen on its own. The U. S. has had a direct role in the creation of the problem.

The migration of children and families didn’t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers have recently surged. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Many hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they’d be reunited. …

Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible, in the only way open to them.

3) If one can’t undo the root causes or change the current symptoms, then one is left to deal with the actual consequences. By which I mean the humanitarian crisis that the U.S. now faces. As one commentator has put it, the bottom line is simply this:

Child migrantWe need to show compassion and take care of these children who have traveled thousands of miles from three of the most dangerous countries in the world. They deserve a hearing to determine if their claims are valid, and we should treat them humanely throughout that process, while sending resources to expedite it.

The child migration crisis requires us to look in the mirror and ask some hard questions of ourselves. After all,

The arrival of large numbers of children on our doorstep is not a physical menace to us. Nor is it an unsustainable financial burden. It is not a legal or bureaucratic matter either. Instead, it is a moral issue of how we choose to define ourselves as a country.

Sometimes we have to look into the face of a child to find out who we really are.


Photo credits: Donna Burton; Omar Torres/AFP/Getty; AP

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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