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
Republicans seem to be more interested in using children to attack Obama than helping children. But then, they do that with US children too.
I’m afraid that’s all too true. Republicans seem to view everything and anything as a potential weapon to use against Obama.
I just wish that O. himself would hang tough on this one. After what they have gone through, these kids deserve that day in court. If they get a fair hearing, and are represented by lawyers, probably about half will be able to stay here; half will be deported —though I think if they have relatives here who are willing to care for them and support them, they should be allowed to stay. Most of these people have been sending money home; they are working and could afford to keep these kids.
As I’ll explain in my next post, we actually are facing a labor shortage in may areas. These kids would help fill some of the gaps.
From all the reports appearing in the media, other than the absurdest Fox genre, it would seem that the problem for this country originates in the Central American countries from which the children are fleeing. Granted that there needs to be a humanitarian resolution for the current crop of children at the border. That, however, is only a stop gap approach to what is likely to be a continuing saga of immigrants fleeing such home grown violence.
There needs to be a focus of attention on the causes for the rise of such pervasive violence and what can be done to resolve that situation. Those Central American countries do have governments. I would guess that those governments have close ties to this country in some economic way. If those governments don’t take action to improve life for their own citizens this country will have to accept a continuing stream of their cast offs, which is what they are making of their own children.
You write: “There needs to be a focus of attention on the causes for the rise of such pervasive violence and what can be done to resolve that situation.”
I totally agree.
But the problem is that the governments in these countries are in shambles. (I won’t try to go into the history here, but the governments are very weak, and the police are corrupt.
By contrast, Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in the area, is much, much safer and more stable. This is why so many children are fleeing there.
The Obama administration has made some efforts to strengthen crime control in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
But to really do the job, we would have to contribute far more $$ to these countries –and really get involved in their crime control efforts. We have had some success (I will write about this in part 2).
But this Congress is not inclined to spend money on the root causes of the exodus. Too many legislators are far more focused on trying to stem the flow of immigrants through punitive “deterrents”
As I will explain in part 2, many experts who know this area well don’t think that will work. When people are desperate, they will continue to try to come here. They have no other options.
As a Hindu, I believe it is our Dharma, our duty, to try and help these children to the best of our ability and resources.
Maybe we can’t take in all these kids, but perhaps we can find ways to work with other nations to help take some of these kids in, and also work to bring some stability to their home nations so that they can return home some day knowing they will not face beatings, rapes and perhaps even death.
In this country, people of many religions agree with you.
Various faith-based organizations have volunteered to help.
We don’t need to send these kids to other countries. We provide safe haven for a far smaller percentage of the world’s refugees than many, much poorer, countries.
And the majority of these kids have relatives here. They need to be reunited with their families.
We also need to help their countries by providing training for police. This will take time and $$$–money that this Congress is not willing to provide.
But I am hopeful that in a few years we will have a more progressive Congress. In the meantime, perhaps we can work through the U.N.
It is really hard for me to follow this cause, being myself a Canadian immigrant. It is becoming a complete nightmare to get your papers done in order to be able to become a legal workman. I cannot understand why both countries with such vast amount of land don’t want to support people from Central America or from poor countries in Asia to come and work there. Some government incentive plan would be absolutely great, and it would probably consume less money than the current border control + anti-immigration apparatus that we finance from our taxes.
I entirely agree.
First, despite high unemployment we actually face a shortage of workers in the U.S. For instance, we need more agricultural workers to pick crops (This is work that most Americans won’t do, farmer report, even if offered over minimum wage. ) For this reason, we import more fruits and vegetables than we would if we had more workers.
We also need workers in construction jobs. (Some lost their jobs in 2008–but now they have either retired or moved on, and we need more young construction workers.
Finally, as our population ages we will need a great many more home health care workers and others to help aging boomers. Already, immigrants do much of this work–but there are not enough of them.
Canada is opening its doors to workers from Central America. In my next post I’ll refer to what the company “Maple” is doing. It’s all part of the
government’s ‘multi-cultural” program.
Many Americans resist the whole idea of multiculturalism. I am afraid that this is because we are far more racist than Canadians.
Finally, I totally agree –Instead of spending huge amounts of money trying to deter immigration, we might better organize it. A government program that did back-ground checks and then funneled immigrants to places where they are needed–and where jobs are waiting for them– would be far more rational.
A “guest-worker” program that let agricultural workers (and others) come and go, as needed, would also help our economy, and cost less money.
Yes, unemployment remains a huge problem in the U.S. But this is, in part, because many younger Americans just aren’t willing to do the work that needs to be done.
Ask a college graduate about becoming a nurse, working with elderly people, or even becoming a public school teacher, and it’s likely she’ll look at you as if you’re crazy. Who ME?? Too much work, too little prestige,
“For instance, we need more agricultural workers to pick crops (This is work that most Americans won’t do, farmer report, even if offered over minimum wage. )”
Perhaps that means agriculture workers are worth more than what is being offered. Pay enough and you will get all the workers you want.
Then problem is that Americans just won’t (and many can’t) do this back-breaking work–imagine being bent over, hand-picking strawberries in 90 degree heat.
They’ve tried raising wages, offering bonuses, etc.
“Wages are jumping in California to $2 to $3 over the $8 hourly minimum wage and even more for those working piece rate.
“The shortage – driven by a struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico, and bigger hurdles to illegal border crossings – has led some farmers to offer unusual incentives: they’re buying meals for their workers, paying for transportation to and from fields, even giving bonuses to those who stay for the whole season.
“And a few have stationed foremen near their crews to prevent other farmers from wooing away their workers”.
Still huge shortages.
As a result, some large agricultural companies have moved production to
Latin America–where workers are willing to do this work.
Other farmers are simply losing money.
We need a guest-worker program that lets immigrants from Latin America come and go across our borders. That was supposed to be part of the
immigration reform that Republicans now refuse to consider.
Too bad the folks who really need to will NEVER take the time to read your article. They are too busy spewing hate.
Than you so much for your support.
I’m afraid that the people spewing the hate don’t do a lot of reading.