This year, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the US-Mexico border, along with women and children. All have been found seeking access to the United States without documentation, and the result has been a humanitarian crisis in the border states as refugees live for weeks, months, and sometimes years in detainee facilities while clogged immigration courts rush people through to make critical decisions about their lives. Children have become the face of this crisis because their plight is so poignant, but also because earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced that it would be deporting the majority of children found along the border, before quickly backtracking on the decision in response to public outcry.
What’s happening, and why? While undocumented immigrants have always moved back and forth across the US border seeking a better life in the US and trying to remain in communication with their families, the issue of children seeking refuge has grown larger than ever. A great deal of it has to do with violence in Latin America; many children are seeking safety from unstable governments in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. Poverty is also a significant issue in some Latin American countries, driving children to the US as well as wealthier South and Central American nations like Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize.
The approximately 52,000 children who have been apprehended this year have been taken into immediate detention, but under the law, they can’t be deported immediately. Instead, they are entitled to the benefit of legal hearings and a chance to present their case, so authorities can determine whether they qualify for asylum or refugee status. The Obama Administration has been pushing for a change to this law, arguing that fast-tracked deportations would make it easier to get children out of detainee facilities and back to their homes — but this doesn’t address the underlying problems that are driving children from their homes in the first place. Returning children to their nations of origin could deprive them of opportunities in addition to exposing them to serious risks.
After the White House asked Congress for the authority to fast-track deportations, the immigrant rights community responded swiftly, arguing that this could deprive people of their due process rights and create an untenable human rights violation. In the face of such strong opposition, the Administration reframed its request, but it’s still asking for funds to assist with streamlining deportation proceedings and expanding immigration detention facilities in order to accommodate the growing number of people caught along the border. In other words: Immigrants, get out. The Administration has already distinguished itself in terms of the unprecedented number of immigrants it expels every year, and this just adds to that reputation.
Meanwhile, children on the border are reporting human rights abuses in Border Control custody, an unsurprising result given that the Border Patrol has been accused on multiple occasions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Children say they’re being kept in frigid holding cells with limited access to food, water, and medical care, and that they’re being subjected to emotional abuse, sleep deprivation tactics, and physical abuse. These kinds of torture tactics, the Border Patrol claims, are happening because it’s being inundated with immigrants, not because it’s deliberately attempting to dehumanise children.
But this claim is dubious. The issue of unaccompanied minors has always been present at the border, and the Border Patrol has always been aware that if it’s going to imprison people in immigration holding facilities, it needs to expand them and expand staff to keep up. The agency chose not to do that, investing its energy in other avenues. And the level of abuse goes beyond simply being ‘overwhelmed’ with people — Border Patrol agents are very clearly treating children with contempt and hatred, not humanity and respect.
As if that wasn’t enough, conservatives are acting as though immigrant children are nothing more than disease vectors, poised to bring a host of illnesses into the United States. Aside from the fact that this attitude is repugnant and reprehensible, it’s also not correct. Vaccination rates are excellent in much of Central and South America, for starters, and in fact, children coming from some communities are probably better vaccinated against disease than some US children. The largest risk of disease for immigrant children comes from the inhumane and unhygienic conditions used in immigration detention, where crowded environments and poor nutrition can cause serious illnesses.
The United States claims to be ‘working on this issue,’ but its efforts primarily seem to be focused on turning children away from the border, sending them back if they manage to cross, and keeping them in a state of horrific conditions until their deportation dates arise. This is how a supposed world leader and free nation treats those seeking refuge and a better life within its borders, evidently; as garbage that must be disposed of as quickly as possible in order to avoid stepping on it.
While the measures the US government is taking in its quest to avoid being tainted by immigrant children may be aimed at addressing the issue from the US side of the border, a better investment might be made in foreign aid, policy, and development. If the US could assist struggling nations with the circumstances that are driving children hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from home in search of a better life, perhaps immigrants wouldn’t feel compelled to risk everything to get into the United States.
Image: Columba Cogiati, Eneas De Troya, Flickr.