I have been wrestling with how our government should handle the humanitarian crisis in full-spate at our U.S.-Mexico border, where unaccompanied children, as well as mothers with young children, are crossing into the United States at unprecedented rates, overwhelming our Border Patrol and other immigration-related resources. About 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed in the five first months of 2014, and officials estimate that if the surge keeps up, we may reach 90,000 by the end of the year. To place this in perspective, the pre-2012 average was 8,000; in 2012, it was 13,625; and in 2013, it was 24,668. Most of the children come from Central America, mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where poverty, crime and gang-related violence are facts of daily life for them. It is clear that they are fleeing desperate conditions and unsafe environments at home, but what we need to understand is why they choose to make the perilous journey to the United States, and why in such large numbers now.
Conservative anti-immigrant commentators have blamed the surge of unaccompanied immigrant children on the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program, which provides temporary, short-term deferral from deportation actions to unauthorized immigrants of good moral character who entered the United States before age 16, and were under age 32 and maintained continuous presence in the country as of June 15, 2012. Blame is also assigned to the Border Patrol’s policy of releasing most unauthorized immigrants caught at the border, so that they may travel to stay with relatives rather than be housed in overcrowded detention facilities, with the requirement that they appear in immigration court to face deportation proceedings. The combination of these actions, according to these pundits, has filtered down to Central America as a policy of issuing permits or permisos to stay.
Immigrant advocates emphasize the dangers that these children face in their home countries, with the children themselves listing “crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration,” and also the desire for family reunification, but the most common reason being extreme poverty. In short, it is unbearable to stay in their home countries, so they flee, and one study found that “The children and their families had decided they must leave and chose to go where they had family, rather than chose to leave because they had family elsewhere. Essentially, they would be going to another country like Belize or Costa Rica if their family was there instead of in the U.S.”
So they come to the United States perhaps partly because of false rumors that they can qualify for permission to stay because they are children (the target population of the DACA program) or because of the the rumored permisos. Partly it is because there is already a family member here. But the most influential reason is because they they believe they will find safety and opportunity, including the ability to go to school and get jobs, here in America.
What should we do with the children who are here already? I believe the most cost-effective way to process these children is to provide them with advocates knowledgable about immigration law so that it can be determined as quickly as possible whether they qualify for any sort of lawful status or whether they must (and can) be returned to their home country. They might be the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who could sponsor them for green cards. They might be derivative U.S. citizens themselves, a highly unlikely but possible scenario. They might merit asylum due to persecution based on membership in a particular social group. They might qualify for special immigrant juvenile status as minors abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents. They might qualify for U nonimmigrant status as victims of violent crimes who are willing to help in the investigation or prosecution of such crimes as certified by a U.S. law enforcement agency. There may be other less common lawful immigration statuses possible under current immigration law for which they qualify. Or, they may not be deportable because their home countries will not accept them back. If they are left to their own abilities to navigate our complex and intimidating deportation system, these children’s cases may take up to five years to process. While it may be expensive to provide legal representation to these unaccompanied children, in the long term I believe it will cost more not to do so, including longer case processing times which will clog up our already overburdened immigration court system, and the costs to immigration agencies to monitor these children while they have the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, and the costs in their lives while their fates are in limbo, not knowing if they will be allowed to stay and establish safe lives here in America or not. Five years in an adult’s life is a long time. Five years in a child’s life can feel like an eternity.
Ultimately, these children will either be determined to have the lawful right to stay or not. Even if found deportable the question then becomes will their country of citizenship accept them back. If not, then under the law we must allow them to stay and go to school and eventually, to be lawfully employed, even if they are not granted permanent resident status, because there is nowhere for them to go should we eject them from our country. It is better to get these questions answered sooner rather than to drag out the process based on a child’s (nascent or nonexistent) ability to advocate for him or herself.
That is my proposal for how to deal with the children now here. The harder question is what can be done to prevent more children from overwhelming our immigration resources for little return. Even if the Obama administration, or the next administration, rolls back the DACA program and starts detaining all unauthorized immigrants caught illegally crossing our borders (which begs the question of where the resources will come from to detain all these people), I doubt that this will deter most of this demographic of children from attempting to come. The rumors of permisos might make it more tempting to make the journey to America, but what really motivates these children is a desire to escape home environments of extreme poverty and extreme violence; having relatives in the United States who can help them establish stable lives here; and the continuing perception of America as a land of opportunity where they can be safe and, with hard work, be able to make something of their lives rather than having to struggle just to survive.
One option is to “secure” our borders. We have a very long and porous land border with Mexico (and also with Canada, incidentally). We could build a wall or a fence along the entire border. We could post armed guards along this fence at close intervals, around the clock. (Are we actually prepared to shoot these children and other unauthorized immigrants?) We could ramp up our Coast Guard to constantly monitor our coastlines for boats or ships carrying unauthorized immigrants. We could constantly search for exits to underground tunnels under the border ending in warehouses in U.S. border cities. We could do all these things, at great cost, but still determined intending immigrants would find a way to come if the stakes are high enough for them. Would you be deterred by these measures if you thought you have nothing left to lose and a land of opportunity to gain?
We could treat these children as harshly as possible, until they “self-deport” and tell others not to come to this land of prisons and interminable deportation proceedings, like Edgar Chocoy-Guzman, whose story has been retold in the play De Novo (which I reviewed in an earlier post). Once apprehended, we could house them in overcrowded, bare-bones facilities, or detain them at taxpayer expense in prison, taking away their freedom of movement. We could make the deportation process incomprehensible and impossible to knowledgeably navigate by denying them legal representation. Under such circumstances, many children would eventually lose hope in their quest to live safely in America and perhaps voluntarily return to the dangerous, wretched homes they left.
The costs of driving these children away is high, and for what return?
Or, as audacious as this might be in today’s political climate, we could embrace them as aspiring Americans, provide them with lawful immigration status, allow them to obtain an education and then enter the workforce legally, and then see how they contribute to our society and to our economy. Immigrants, compared to native-born populations, tend to be willing to take more risks, and be more entrepreneurial, creating new businesses and new opportunities when more mundane careers as employees are closed to them because they are newcomers in their communities. These are characteristics that any country aiming to remain economically vital needs in great supply.
The title of this blog is The Golden Door, from the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. The lines of this poem, engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, conclude with this exhortation:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Once we as a people believed in this sentiment, deeming it worthy of being permanently ensconced on a compelling symbol of our democracy. These children are the living embodiment of the huddled masses in The New Colossus: they are the homeless, the tempest-tost yearning to breathe free. We have taken in such populations before, and have been repaid with innovation and invention and renewed vitality. I posit that accepting rather than driving away these desperate immigrant children will ultimately repay us in a strengthening of our society, an investment in our future as a diverse and humane nation that can absorb all different kinds of peoples and cultures and still remain uniquely American.