Border Crisis: Fictions v. Facts (Part 2 of “Children from Central America”)

 by Maggie Mahar

Despite extensive media coverage, there is probably much that you don’t know about the history of the border crisis—and what we can or should do in response. Too often the headlines are designed to stir passions, rather than inform.

At the end of next week, Congress will leave for its five-week August Recess. Between now and then legislators will be debating the issues, and no doubt many of your friends will be taking positions.

Here are the facts you need when weighing what you hear–whether on television or at a neighbor’s barbecue.

  • Are you aware that since President Obama took office, it has become harder for illegal immigrants to cross our Southwestern border? This is something Fox News doesn’t usually mention.
  • Did you know that even if we deport the tens of thousands of children who have come here since last October, many refugee experts agree they’ll try again—and that other children will follow them? In other words, they say, deportation will not serve as a deterrent. These kids are running for their lives.
  • Are you aware that in the past the U.S. has backed military coups and paramilitary death squads in Central America? As democratically-elected governments toppled, constitutional order collapsed, and the gangs took over the streets.  Does this mean that we are in part responsible for the exodus of kids fleeing violence at home? That is a difficult question, but definitely worth thinking about.

  • Did you know that the most powerful gangs originated in Los Angeles?  In the 1990s, we began deporting these thugs (via ConAir), and dumped them back in countries ill-equipped to police them.
  • Had you heard that the kids coming in today are not trying to avoid border patrols? They are rafting, swimming, and walking into the U.S. in broad daylight. So the problem is not that we don’t have enough border patrols to “secure the border. “ The new immigrants are eager to turn themselves over to border officials. Why? In 2008, former President George W. Bush signed the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.” This bipartisan measure mandates that the border patrols cannot simply send unaccompanied minors from Central America back to their home countries. The U.S. government must try to find responsible relatives in the U. S. and place the children with them (or in foster homes) while they await a hearing before an immigrant court judge.

Understanding this law–and why it passed so easily in 2008—is key to understanding the legal and moral quandary that President Obama and Congress now face.

  • Finally, how many Americans are aware that, despite high unemployment rates in the U.S., we face a labor shortage? We need more immigrants willing to pick crops, work construction, and provide long-term care for baby-boomers.

Canada’s population also is aging, and Canada  is welcoming them as a part of that  country’s embrace of multiculturalism. We are not. Are we missing something?

All in all, this crisis is far more complicated than most reports acknowledge.

Before you decide where you stand on the issue, you might want to consider the media myths vs. the facts below.

  On President Obama’s Role

Fiction: President Obama’s lax immigration policies have encouraged children to stream into this country.

Fact: As marauding gangs have taken over cities in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, children have been fleeing, not only to the U.S. , but to Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Cost Rica and Belize.

From 2008 to 2013, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has documented a 712% increase in the number of Central Americans applying for asylum in those five countries.

Clearly President Obama’s policies on immigration did not drive their decision to seek safe haven in Panama or Costa Rica.

Fiction: Reports of violence in Central America have been greatly overblown. These children are coming to the U.S. in search of jobs, social services and better living conditions.

Fact: Street gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador torture and execute young boys who refuse to join. As I explained in part 1 of this post gang members also pick out young girls who they want to be their “girl-friends”—which means they will be raped by one or more members of the gang. Neither their families nor the police can protect them. This is why they run.

According to the U.S. State Department, Guatemala now has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. El Salvador reports the second-highest murder rate in Latin America, and Honduras ranks #1, world-wide.

There, child murders are up 77% from just a year ago.

Finally, note that Nicaragua, which is the poorest nation in mainland Latin America (and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti)  has seen a 238% increase in asylum applications from Central Americans in the last year. This serves as strong evidence that desperate children and families are not seeking “economic opportunities.”

There are no opportunities in Nicaragua. They are fleeing the mayhem at home.

Fiction:By refusing to deport these illegal immigrants President Obama is breaking the law.

Fact: Quite the opposite. If Obama tried to deport them immediately, he would be ignoring the law. As noted above, a popular bi-partisan bill signed by George W. Bush in 2008 blocks immediate deportation.

Instead, the legislation mandates that border officials hand the unaccompanied children from Central America over to the Dept. of Health and Human Services. HHS is charged with locating relatives in the U.S. who will take the children while they await a hearing before an immigrant court judge. That judge will then decide whether the danger they face back at home qualifies them for refugee status. If it does not, they will be deported.

Republicans are eager to overturn the 2008 law, and in the past, President Obama has indicated that he, too, would like to see Congress rewrite parts of the legislation.

But now Obama is backing away from that idea –in part because so many Congressional Democrats strongly disagree.

Fiction: If we send the kids back now it will “send a message” and stem the tide of illegals.

Fact: “There’s no empirical evidence that this sort of deterrence would immediately stop children from coming — or that it would stop them at all. That’s especially true for children who are fleeing violence, who are coming to the US because they have nowhere else to go,” observes Vox’s Dara Lind, who has done some of the best reporting on this crisis.

Just one example: In July, 15-year-old Karen Laucel and her 16-year-old sister, Sindy, set out from Guatemala, hoping to reconnect with their mother who left their farming village 10 years ago, in search of work in the U.S. Their father stayed behind. The girls have not seen her since, but, they told the L.A. Times, she phoned frequently and sent money.

Then, both their father and their grandfather were murdered. The killings remain unsolved. Police know that it is dangerous to investigate such killings.

Now, Karen and Sindy’s mother knew that they were in danger.  She forwarded money to pay a “coyote” (someone who smuggles humans) to take them to the border. She knew she couldn’t trust the child smuggler, but she also knew realized that she couldn’t trust the authorities in Guatemala who did little to investigate the murders of the girls’ father and grandfather.

At that point Sindy memorized her mother’s phone number in North Carolina, and the girls began their 2,0000 mile journey, with a 10-year-old from their village in tow.

In Mexico they were stopped and sent home. (Mexican authorities have been trying to cooperate with the US. Immigration officials.)

“I cried and cried,” said Karen.  Sindy told a L.A. Times reporter that she thought perhaps the Mexican border control officers zeroed in on her because she was “’shaking so much.’”

Now, back home, “all she wanted was to take a bath and to sleep. And then, maybe, to try again.”

“‘I don’t want to give up,’” Sindy said.

Given her options, probably she won’t. (If you were a 16-year-old in a country where your father and grandfather had been slaughtered; the police didn’t care; and older boys were circling you, like dogs, what would you do?)

A new International Migration Review study shows that deported immigrants’ desire to reunite with family can often trump the threat of enforcement and lead them to return to the US. As Vox’s Dar Lind observes: “That means that mass deportation will be totally counterproductive: instead of inspiring fewer people to come to the United States, it will force children and families to make the life-threatening journey again.”

Lind quotes, Jacqueline Hagan, one of the co-authors of the study, who “believes that any child or mother who has already decided that the life-threatening journey to the US was worth it the first time is likely not to feel that he or she has any other options.

When Lind asked Hagan about the theory that deporting children and families now will “send a message” that will deter future families from coming, “She responded in something between amusement and disbelief.”

Vanna Slaughter, director of immigration and legal services for Catholic Charities of Dallas (CCD) agrees: even if they are deported now, these kids, and other like them, will not give up:

“When you’re living in the deplorable, difficult, dangerous circumstances that these people are living in, they’re going to try everything they can to get here, to get out of that. It’s just human nature,” she told Truthout-org. I am not hopeful that added enforcement is going to make that big of a difference, and I think we’re deluding ourselves.

Fiction: On Obama’s watch, the border has become more and more porous. “Hordes of illegal aliens” are crossing into the U.S.

Fact: It is true that over the past year, more minors have been making their way across the border. But since Obama became president the total number of people crossing the Southwestern border illegally has fallen sharply. As the Economist observes it is “harder to get in than before”:

“A study in 2008 found that a would-be migrant who kept trying was almost certain to succeed eventually, so illegal immigrants [who had made their way to the U.S. and settled here] would regularly go home to see their families, secure in the knowledge that they would be able to return. Now they tend to stay put. Stricter border enforcement thus keeps families apart, and gives migrant parents a powerful incentive to send for their kids.

Those who want to reform our immigration laws support “guest worker” provisions that would allow parents to come to the U.S. to pick crops–and then return home, for the rest of the year, to be with their children.

According to a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) study published this spring, fully 36 percent of the unaccompanied immigrant children it interviewed had at least one parent in the United States.

Contrary to many news reports, these parents are not “sending” their children to the U.S. The parent already is here, hoping that, under the 2008 Bush-era law, if the child makes it to the border, HHS will re-unite him with his family while he waits for his day in court.

Fiction: President Obama had done nothing to address the root problem at its source—inside these Central American countries.

Fact: An elite unit of the Honduran national police, trained and funded by the United States, has been patrolling the Honduran border in a mission to slow down the flow of migrants. State Department documents reveal that the special tactical units from the Border patrol have been training Honduran border guards since 2012. That year, the teams taught at least five courses, each 13 weeks long, training about 100 Honduran border police officers. This year, they ramped up the training.

The program was funded through a program called the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Since 2008, the State Department has spent more than $642 million through the program in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

But to address the root problem, the U.S. would need to support democratically elected reform governments that would weed out corruption both in the government and in the police.

Until that happens these countries will continue to unravel. And families will do whatever they must to find refuge from the grotesque violence that threatens their children.

Fiction: Republicans have the votes to repeal or rewrite the 2008 law that blocks immediate deportation of unaccompanied minors from Central  America.

Fact: Republicans and Democrats have reached a stalemate. Two days ago Republican Sen. John Cornyn told the Associated Press: “Unfortunately, it looks like we’re on a track to do absolutely nothing.” Republican House Leader Boehner is a blow-hard, but Cornyn is being realistic.

Republicans are determined to rewrite  the Bush-era legislation, but can’t do it without the Senate–and the president.

AP reports that while “Some Democrats initially were open to such changes most are now strongly opposed.” Presumably as they learn more about the situation in Central America, they are appalled. They also recognize how the US would look, in the eyes of the world–not to mention in the eyes ofLatino, Africa-America voters under 45 in the U.S. — if they put 10-year-old’s back in harm’s way. (As I will report in part 3 of this post, all three groups strongly favor letting the children stay. Even some Republicans are becoming nervous: could the border crisis fire up these voters, brining them out to make their feelings known in the mid-term elections this fall?)

Here is what Democrats in Congress say: “I’m very reluctant to change the law because I think these children face death, murder, vicious abuse, persecution, if they are returned,” declares  Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Senate Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey are standing by the children.

“The United States is about to be tested,” Durbin told the Senate. “We’re about to be tested as how our generation responds to this. I hope we pass that test.” On the other side of the aisle, Republicans vow that unless the law is changed, they won’t  provide any of the $3.7 billion that President Obama has asked for to address the crisis.

Friday, Republican lawmakers announced that, at best, they they are  willing to appropriate “less than $1 billion” –and then, only if  most of the young immigrants  are “immediately voluntarily returned to their home country.” Those who won’t leave voluntarily, claiming that they are in danger, “would be given a hearing within a week.”

This is hardly due process.

Today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office issued  a statement saying that the Republican plan “imposes a sham legal process for unaccompanied children” and raises the likelihood that “children who may be entitled to legal protections are wrongly repatriated to face violence, persecution torture and murder.”

Across the country,  lawyers are volunteering to represent these kids “pro bono” (they would not be paid)  But immigrations laws are extremely complicated. Pelosi is right: adequate defenses cannot be prepared in such a short time.

No question, Congressional Democrats and Republicans are deadlocked.

As for President Obama, earlier it had seemed that he might be open to some change in the 2008 law, but as noted above, now he is listening to fellow Democrats in the Senate.

Just today, Senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer told a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that a lack of action on the “spending” [bill] would give Obama “broad permission to take what executive action we can” on the issue. He declined to give details.

History suggests that in the absence of Congressional action on emergency funding , the White House has broad authority.

In the end, I believe that  Obama himself will decide this issue.

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