Migrant Children at the Border: Some Inconvenient Truths
[This viewpoint is one of many. One of the authors, Professor Wayne Cornelius, is a parishioner at St. James, La Jolla. The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego does not endorse any particular viewpoint. If you would like to propose a different perspective, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.]
The recent uproar over a wave of Central American children entering the United States illegally lays bare, again, the tension between protections for migrants embedded in our legal system and the political exigencies of managing (or exploiting) the ever-present anti-immigration public backlash.
The sight of conservative House Republicans trooping to the south Texas border for photo-ops reveals that they are playing to the nativists, who are far more numerous in their districts than Latino voters.
Less comprehensible are statements and actions of Obama administration officials who, having given up on enacting comprehensive immigration reform before 2017, are still trying to buy political space for reform legislation – or provide cover for Democrats running for reelection — by appeasing immigration hard-liners in Congress.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently trumpeted his department’s accomplishment in reducing the time needed to deport undocumented mothers from an average of 33 days to just four. Billions have been requested to further toughen border security and to hire more immigration judges to speed deportations. But these “solutions” fly in the face of several politically inconvenient realities.
It is convenient to blame the wave of migrant children (in some cases, their mothers) on the activities of “criminal smuggling gangs,” as Secretary Johnson and other administration officials have done. Clearly, some portion of the recent wave can be blamed on misinformation about “permisos” used by smugglers to attract clients. But unauthorized migration of minors riding the tops of freight trains from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border has been going on continuously since the 1980s. Only the timing and, perhaps, the sharpness of the most recent uptick may be attributable to smuggling organizations.
The politically inconvenient truth is that the vast majority of these child migrants are fleeing the very real prospect of death at the hands of drug smugglers (whose trade is fueled by U.S. drug consumers), gangs (whose numbers have been dwelled by deportations from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities), and local soldiers and police (whose sense of impunity has been bolstered by decades of U.S. government security assistance).
Against this background, exactly what “messages” are we sending by moving children to the front of the deportation line and investing more heavily in border enforcement?
Extensive field research has demonstrated that previous investments in policing the U.S.-Mexican border since 1994 have failed to create a reliable deterrent to undocumented migration. The sharp post-2007 downturn in illegal entries can be explained largely by the collapse of U.S. demand for low-skilled labor in housing and other sectors during the Great Recession and persisting softness in these labor markets. These macroeconomic conditions have had far greater impact on undocumented migration than our three-decade border enforcement build-up.
Why should we expect more of the same to induce Central American children and their mothers facing mortal danger to stay put? More incarcerations, criminal prosecutions, and speedy deportations will enable migrant-smugglers to charge more for their services while not discouraging their clients from seeking refuge by trying their luck at the border.
And what is to be gained by dismantling or eroding the protections and safeguards afforded to vulnerable children by our immigration laws and constitution? Law and policy, including legislation passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, have long recognized the need to ensure that children’s due process rights are protected: that they have their day in court, access to legal representation, and an opportunity to seek humanitarian protection if eligible.
Unaccompanied minors are supposed to be carefully screened by federal officials to determine whether they are victims of human trafficking, abuse, or violence. If detained children are subjected to expedited removal, or if they are induced to sign papers authorizing swift “voluntary return” to their home countries, these children will have no opportunity to plead their case to an Immigration Judge. Instead they will be returned to places they face possible death or grievous bodily harm.
The current humanitarian crisis is an opportunity to move forward, not backward. We should reaffirm our commitment to assessing whether vulnerable children are at risk and in need of humanitarian protection afforded under existing law.
Passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including more opportunities to migrate legally to the United States from high-demand countries, would go far toward deflating the business of people-smugglers. Since prospects for such legislation in the near future are nil, the Obama administration should proceed to fix as much as possible of the dysfunction in our immigration system by executive action, undeterred by the political opportunism of Congressional immigration hawks.
Wayne A. Cornelius is distinguished professor of political science, emeritus, and director of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at the University of California, San Diego. Carmen Chávez is executive director of the Casa Cornelia Law Center, which provides pro-bono legal services to unaccompanied child migrants and asylum-seekers in San Diego.