A humanitarian crisis on doorstep of US southwest


Depending on your politics, the border crisis in the US southwest is a “humanitarian ” or an “immigration” crisis. Some Republicans even paint the 52,000 unaccompanied children caught illegally crossing the dangerous border since October as an “invasion”. The sudden migration has overwhelmed local resources, touching off protests from residents angry about the impact on the local economy.

On Monday President Obama asked Congress for an emergency $3.7 billion to tackle the influx – mostly by rounding them up in new detention centres, pushing them through accelerated immigration hearings, and then repatriating them. But the political toxicity of the broader immigration issue is such that many Republicans say they will block the cash unless Obama gets even tougher. His “laxness”, they say, is the magnet drawing illegals to the US.

The children’s plight scarcely finds a place in the argument. Yet a UN refugee agency survey recently found that 58 per cent of those arriving from Central America cited violence as one key reason they fled to the US. Most have a legitimate claim to some form of asylum protection because they are fleeing a place of undeniable generalised violence.

Ironically, part of the reason for the surge is unintended fallout from the passage in the last days of the Bush administration of then-uncontroversial anti-sex-trafficking legislation that extended rights to court hearings to children entering the country alone. The legislation – the “Wilberforce Act” in tribute to the anti-slavery campaigner – now ties the hands of the administration, the White House says, in dealing with them expeditiously. And quite right too.

Critics of the “tighten-the-border and throw-them-out” approach also say that it would be far better – and cheaper – to stop the flow by funding badly needed political and economic reforms in Central America to create the opportunities denied to the region’s young people at home. Increased violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are the major push factors – Honduras is one of the world’s murder capitals. One US-funded pilot programme in Guatemala, for example, gives children repatriated from the US a safe place to stay and provides education and job training.

Otherwise, as Salvadoran journalist Héctor Silva Avalos argues, “the children will keep coming faster than the US can deport them. Fences, drones, helicopters and armed guards won’t stop them. Promoting serious reform in their home countries will.”

And, although politically difficult, Obama also needs to redouble stalled efforts in Congress to create a legal path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented, and to create an effective guest worker programme that would allows US employers, who can’t find American workers, legally to bring in the help they need from abroad.