Immigrants or Refugees: Endangered Children At The Gates

Are they immigrants or refugees?

While Congress argues about border patrol funds and both sides chide Barack Obama for not visiting immigrant placement centers in the Rio Grande Valley –and for taking five minutes to breathe– there are humans waiting at the border between the US and Mexico, asking for help. Many of them approached border patrol officers rather than attempt to sneak across the border into the US. Every one of them has a face and a name. There are more of them, in Mexican detention centers, accosted along the road north. Most have stories that, in other parts of the world, would inspire the American people into clamoring for action–possibly military.

The UN wants them classified as refugees, not immigrants, and because they are running from armed warfare, they qualify–if not in the usual way.

If they are returned to Central America, they go back into a war zone. To that end, some concerned politicians are suggesting that the minors not be sent back to their homeland, but few have alternative options to offer.

So far this year, the US border patrol has detained 57,000 unaccompanied minors and at least 39,000 adults with children who are all seeking a new life and opportunities not available in their native countries.

In a meeting with President Obama, Texas governor Rick Perry suggested the issue be handled by tightening the border–adding more National Guard troops, putting Predator drones in the air, adding detainment camps, movement-monitoring ankle bracelets, and implementing tougher immigration policy changes.

Barack Obama, having already requested that Congress put nearly four million into emergency funding for the border patrol problem, also seeks to amend current immigration laws with an eye to expedite the deportation of Central American children.

Republicans claim that the supplemental funding is unlikely to be handed over quickly; they claim it would be like giving the President a blank check. This is an inaccuracy, as the White House has given a fiscal breakdown of how those funds would be spent.

Currently labeled as ineligible for political asylum because their countries are not considered active war zones, most of these minors will be sent back to Central America, where only a fraction of them are likely to see adulthood. If the UN passes a resolution in their favor, giving them refugee status, the US and Mexico might find themselves pressured by the international community into providing the much-needed aid that has been requested–or face charges of human rights violations.

At this point, the options are slim. Due to immigration laws passed under George W. Bush, the underaged, illegal immigrants at our doorstep cannot be simply turned back. They must be given a chance to face an immigration judge and it is because of that small hope that, as Rick Perry is quick to point out:

“Five hundred miles south of here in the Rio Grande Valley there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding that has been created by bad public policy, in particular the failure to secure the border.”

He points the finger at Obama, but immigration problems along the US-Mexican border are hardly a new thing. And whereas Perry, a longtime voice for tougher immigration laws, would have the President put the National Guard right on the border –a militarized force against unarmed women and children– Obama would transport the refugees back to the troubled Central American cities and villages from which they fled.

Republican senators are quick to lay the problem at Obama’s feet, claiming the flood of illegal immigrants at the border has been caused by the current administration’s policies, but a fact-check into the Bush administration shows a 2008 law designed to combat child trafficking, which requires that children from Central America must be given a court hearing before being deported or given immigrant status.

That law, put into place by the previous administration, created a mirage for hopeful immigrants; many travel across Mexico–a death-defying journey in itself–to grasp at a small chance for longer, healthier lives or to join family already living in the US. For some of the children currently in immigrant placement facilities, a few years of waiting for an American court–regardless of outcome–might mean the difference between life and death.

They come from places where the drug cartels are beyond government control and where the murder rate is the highest in the world. They come from small, debt-ridden countries where the population has doubled and tripled in less than a hundred years on patches of land that cannot sustain them. They come from areas where the politics are notoriously corrupt and ineffective and where a coup can occur during a presidential election. They come from places where children and young adults are targeted by violent criminals, where schools and churches and buses are regularly attacked.

The average Westerner cannot fathom a reality where young girls can be brutally raped by a dozen gang members, stuffed in a plastic bag, and left for dead –all without being noticed or decried by anyone but her family and friends. This happens frequently in places like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, but if it happened in the US, it would be a news topic for weeks or months. It would be called heinous and evil in the United States because it doesn’t happen here. In Central America, it’s part of daily life and a reason to attempt emigration, legal or illegal.

Many Americans think the government should send the immigrants back to where they came from, ignoring the fact that a jump in attempted border crossings of this proportion has a source and a cause. Others, more aware of the Central American’s troubled world, say that what Obama is preparing to do is inhumane. What no one has is a solution that is viable over the long game.

Most of these hopeful immigrants are women and children who are seeking asylum; they ask for our help, turning themselves over to the border patrol in the hopes that whatever they face next will be simpler and less dangerous than the path through Mexico or the streets of their home towns. They make the journey by truck, on foot, and by riding on top of freight trains. They face rape, death, and slavery just for a chance at standing before an American immigration judge.

Most of us cannot begin to imagine the lives they’ve left behind. Nor can we identify with them, those humans who sit in detainment camps awaiting deportation or acceptance.

In the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, drug cartels and ruthless sex trade gangs divide the streets with invisible lines and blood. For many, choosing to work for a drug cartel is better than starvation and becomes an easy choice when the gangs recruit strenuously, often press-ganging children as young as five and six years old. To refuse the trafficker’s job ‘offer’ often results in death and children are not exempt. But with the highest malnutrition and gang-related murder rates in the world, it’s a matter of pragmatism for Central Americans–flee or die.

Central America: Socially and Geographically Volatile

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are very small countries in a socially and geographically volatile region.

Geographically, the Central American region is a hotbed of geological and climatic activity, subject to frequent volcanic eruptions, lethal mud-slides, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Deforestation and water pollution join soil contamination and erosion to play their parts in making the population problem even more untenable. The land cannot sustain its people.

Socially, Central America is a highway for the smuggling of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The gangs recruit from schools and playgrounds and those who refuse are killed.

Central American countries such as Honduras, with a current birth rate of 3.08, experienced a massive surge in population over the last century. In an country slightly larger than Tennessee, 8.2 million people struggle for resources. El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, is smaller than Massachusetts and has a birth rate of 2.2, culminating in a population of 6.1 million. There are 884 people per square mile. Guatemala is smaller than Pennsylvania, but with a population of 14.6 million and a birth rate of almost four children per woman, there are 348 people per square mile. More than half of the region’s population is under the age of 25.

For many, the chance to escape the turmoil in their homelands makes the deadly journey north, across Mexico, well worth the risk. The question the American people are now faced with is: do we send them home to face death or do we find a better way to care for our underaged immigrants, illegal or not?

What do we do with them?

For more information on the UN’s push to give Central American emigrants a refugee status, you can read about it here.

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