The waves of unaccompanied minors crossing into US territory might have reached crisis proportions weeks ago — but despite calls, including by President Barack Obama — to quickly act on this “urgent humanitarian situation,” young migrants have continued to flood to overwhelmed facilities, and rhetoric has continued to flow about how the US should deal with them.
On Wednesday, House Republicans and Senate Democrats put forth their competing proposals on how to deal with the problem — but with deep divisions between and within party lines, neither option seemed to stand a chance.
Despite what the heated debate of recent weeks might suggest, the overall number of undocumented migrants entering the country illegally is actually at historic low — with 420,000 people arrested at the border in the last budget year, down from 1.6 million in 2000, and the lowest figure since 1973.
What is growing, and at a disturbing rate, is the number of minors crossing the border alone. Among them, the count of children under 12 is growing fastest, according to data released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
'What exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Who exactly are we fearing?'
Most of these minors — as well as most of the families also crossing the border, usually mothers with young children — are arriving through Mexico from other Central American countries, and especially from Honduras and El Salvador, where they are fleeing poverty and some of the worst violent crime in the world.
Unlike their Mexican peers, these kids can’t just be turned away at the border, a federal anti-trafficking law mandates that they receive temporary relocation, assistance, and an immigration hearing.
Yet as the numbers of unaccompanied minors and anti-immigrant protests across the country have grown, some have called for those provisions — or “the Central American exception,” as some critics of it have dubbed it — to be repealed.
'It’s not so much about an immigration question as it is about managing a sort of emergency refugee flow.'
That children fleeing gangs and cartels should be met with such a lack of compassion is a serious cause of concern for some.
“To me, the downright racist and xenophobic reactions of some Americans (and politicians) towards the Central American children — 'Deport the children! Deport them now!' — signify the real fear and anxiety we have towards our growing Latino population,” undocumented advocate Jose Antonio Vargas told VICE News.
“I understand the argument that a civilized country needs to determine and protect its borders. I get that. But with all the billions of dollars and manpower that we’ve spent on the ‘border’, what exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Who exactly are we fearing?”
'The children and families that are from Central America are coming because of extraordinary violence and threats to their wellbeing. That can’t be overlooked.'
The problem, immigration advocates say, is that much of the country fails to see the unaccompanied minors crisis as a humanitarian one — framing the debate in terms of border enforcement instead.
“It is really imperative that we do not overreact to this situation by thinking that changing laws that are designed to protect kids is the solution. The protections are there because we know just how grave the circumstances can be,” Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, told VICE News. “The children and families that are from Central America are coming because of extraordinary violence and threats to their wellbeing. That can’t be overlooked.”
“One of the real unfortunate things of the last few weeks is that almost everybody has made the mistake of treating this like yet another border enforcement issue rather than what it is,” Giovagnoli added.
“It’s not so much about an immigration question as it is about managing a sort of emergency refugee flow. You have to be able to separate those things out and I think some of the responses we are seeing are devolving back to 'If only we had a secure border, none of this would be a problem.'"
And, as Giovagnoli and others have pointed out, most of these migrants are not even trying to sneak into the country by avoiding detection, but are presenting themselves to immigration authorities that are scrambling to provide basic care and then process their cases.
But regardless of the migrants’ ages or the violence they flee, many continue to see them as nothing but “illegals” and “border-crashers” — terms that immigration advocates have long objected to.
“Using terms like ‘illegal’ and ‘border crasher’ dehumanize people and promote violence and discrimination. They send the message that immigrants are sub-human and undeserving, and they confuse the immigration debate,” Vargas said. “Parents send children to America for a better life, not to crash some party.”
But the promise to clamp down on "illegal" immigration has never lost its political appeal.
In what some saw as a taste of presidential campaign discourse to come, Texas governor Rick Perry said Monday that he would send up to 1,000 National Guards troops to the border to deal with the problem.
“There can be no national security without border security, and Texans have paid too high a price for the federal government’s failure to secure our border,” said Perry, who also approved a state-funded border patrol surge in June.
'This isn’t about the typical issues of illegal immigration or people avoiding detection.'
White House officials, who said in the past that deploying the National Guard would be ineffective, dismissed Perry’s announcement as headline-grabbing.
“Gov. Perry has referred repeatedly to his desire to make a symbolic statement to the people of Central America that the border is closed,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “It seems to me that a much more powerful symbol would be the bipartisan passage of legislation that would actually make a historic investment in border security and send an additional 20,000 personnel to the border.”
“Perry’s decision to send the National Guard to the Texas border is basically just for show,” Giovagnoli agreed. “It’s back to this idea that this is somehow about border security and boots on the ground when in fact, first, these people are presenting themselves to the border guards so they are not trying to avoid detection and second, we know that there are these very specific reasons that people are coming from these Central American countries. This isn’t about the typical issues of illegal immigration or people avoiding detection.”
On Tuesday, perhaps in an attempt to show that it has not lost the border battle, the Department of Homeland Security also announced that it has arrested 192 smugglers, seized more than $625,000 in illicit profits, and taken into custody more than 500 undocumented migrants as part of a crackdown on human traffickers in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley — the heart of the current crisis.
'If you enter the United States illegally, we will send you back.'
“We have continued to stress that our borders are not open to illegal migration and that if you enter the United States illegally, we will send you back,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. “Equally important, those who prey upon migrants for financial gain will be targeted, arrested, and prosecuted.”
Earlier this month, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the problem — boosting border patrols, building more immigration facilities, and hiring judges to process thousands of migrants’ cases. But lawmakers from both parties have been debating both the money and changes to the anti-trafficking provisions to come with it.
So far, much like like the oft-touted (and completely stalled) talks of immigration reform itself, that has gone nowhere, drowned in polarizing politics. And with Congress about to check out for its five-week summer recess, the “situation” on the border promises to only get worse.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi