Children from Central America Surge Across Our Border: Congress Must Now Decide Whether to Change the Immigration Law that George W. Bush Signed in 2008

by Maggie Mahar

If you think fertilized eggs are people but refugee kids aren’t, you’re going to have to stop pretending your concerns are religious– Syd’s SoapBox

News reports have been filled with conflicting theories explaining why tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been streaming into the U.S.  Some observers say that their parents are sending them here, so that they can take advantage of the social services and free education available in the U.S. Others argue that they are not coming here willingly, but that they have been forced to flee gang violence in their home countries that ranges from murder to rape. Still others charge that President Obama’s lax immigration policy has drawn these migrants to the U.S.

Unfortunately many of the reports circulating in the media and the blogosphere are not backed up by evidence. Even worse, the American Immigration Council  (AIC) says, “some are intentionally aimed at derailing the eventual overhaul of our broken immigration system.”

I have been fact-checking those reports for more than two weeks.  Below, a summary of you need to know as we debate this tangled story.

The AIC recently released a report, based on documented interviews with more than 350 children from El Salvador which states that  “crime, gang threats, or violence appear to be the strongest determinants for childrens’ decisions to emigrate.”

Typically, the gangs try to recruit children. If they refuse, they and/or family members are shot.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offers charts showing how that in 2012, the murder rate in Honduras in was a whopping 30 percent higher than UN estimates of the civilian casualty rate at the height of the Iraq war. The charts  also reveal that, statistically speaking, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are twice as dangerous for civilians as was Iraq.

Writing on Vox, Amanda Taub explains why minors are in special danger: “Children are uniquely vulnerable to gang violence. The street gangs known as “maras” — M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — target kids for forced recruitment, usually in their early teenage years, but sometimes as young as kindergarten. They also forcibly recruit girls as “girlfriends,” a euphemistic term for a non-consensual relationship that involves rape by one or more gang members.”

This is what 15-year-old Maritza told the UNCHR when it interviewed hundreds of the fleeing children: “One member of the gang  “liked” me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags.”

Maritza’s uncle knew that neither he nor the police could protect her. “My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. They told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7.”

If either girls or boys turn down the gang’s invitation, they and/ or family members are likely suffer retribution.

That is exactly what happened to Jose Luis Zelaya, when he was 13. After he refused to join a Honduran gang, he was shot in each arm while playing soccer.

As soon as he was able, Jose traveled, alone to Texas, hoping  to be reunited with his mother and 9-year-old sister. Along the way he recalls seeing children raped. But Jose made it. Today, he is 27, and a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, studying to be a teacher. He is also volunteering to help the newest wave of immigrants.

“I understand what they’re going through,” he told the L.A. Times. I understand the journey, what it is to be in a detention center and what they can have if they’re reunited” with families. “I know our country is grappling with this. If we send them back, they’re being sent back to death.”

Meanwhile Congressional Republicans blame President Obama. They have seized on the crisis as proof that he has nothing but contempt for the rule of law. “The Obama administration has made it clear to the world that any child who arrives, regardless of whether they are granted formal legal status, will be permitted to stay,” charges Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

What Cruz ignores is the a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush making it illegal for the U.S. to deport an unaccompanied minor, unless he is coming from a bordering country such as Mexico or Canada and can easily be handed over to officials from his homeland. Children who have made the long, dangerous journey from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala by themselves must be given a chance to appear before an immigration judge who will decide whether they would be in danger if they returned home. If so they will qualify as “refugees.” If not, they will be deported.

Since there are around 5,000 immigration cases pending for every qualified judge, deciding who should stay and who should go home could take years, though the Obama administration is now asking Congress for nearly $4 billion in funding to help speed up the process. Republicans say that is too much.

While the children await a court hearing,  the 2008 bill stipulates that the Department of Health and Human Services must hold them humanely until they can be released to a “suitable family member” in the United States. (The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) explains that about 90% of recent child migrants wind up staying with a relative.) The law also mandates that HHS  ensure “to the greatest extent practicable” that these detained children “have counsel to represent them in legal proceedings or matters” who can explain how to apply for asylum.

Back in 2008, the law was intended to prevent immigration officials from inadvertently sending kids back to pimps and drug violence. For this reason, the bill passed with remarkable speed.  Introduced on Dec. 9, 2008, it cleared the House and Senate on the 10th.  President Bush signed it into law 13 days later. At the time, Republicans and Democrats agreed: it was the right thing to do.

Now, no surprise, Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided on this issue. Senator John McCain insists that they must be put on planes and sent home immediately. But legally, this cannot happen unless Congress repeals the law. President Obama has indicated that he is open to making some changes in the Bush-era law that would allow him to expedite deportation.

But other Democrats disagree:  Senator Patrick Leahy (D. Vt)  has said Congress can take action to deal with the surge of immigrants without “watering down our laws or turning our backs on our basic values as Americans.”

“We can either make good on our laws … or we can say ‘gee whiz, we didn’t mean it.’ ”

In part 2 of this post, which I plan to publish this week-end, I will zero in on “Fictions vs. Facts” about why these migrants are pouring into this country; what the administration can and can’t do; the degree to which Obama administration created the crisis by being “soft” on illegal immigrants; the American public’s response to the influx of teens and toddlers; whether we bear any responsibility for their plight; whether deporting thousands would stem the flow of undocumented immigrants, and the degree to which they pose a threat to either our economy or our children.

Cross posted with Healthbeatblog