This country benefits from a healthy, legal flow of fresh talent and energy from all over the world. For that, a comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration laws, including a path to legalized status for those already here illegally, is essential.
But there is nothing healthy, or beneficial, about the migration crisis developing on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tens of thousands of Central American children, some as young as 4, are streaming across, unaccompanied by adults; the Department of Homeland Security estimates that 47,000 youngsters have been detained since October, a 92 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. Many are consigned to improvised holding centers, sleeping on floors and subsisting on bologna until a U.S.-based relative claims them. And those are the lucky ones — the ones who weren’t robbed, kidnapped, waylaid or, perhaps, killed while being conveyed by traffickers through Mexico.
For Republicans, this is the consequence of President Obama’s purportedly loose enforcement of immigration laws and his support of “amnesty for illegals,” which supposedly encouraged more illegal immigration. Democrats counter that all would be well if only the GOP agreed to comprehensive immigration reform. Neither is true. Instead, the flow of children results from a confluence of special factors: conditions in Central America, where many children face poverty and gang violence; the understandable desire of parents in the United States, documented and undocumented, for family reunification; and the unintended consequences of a U.S. law enacted with bipartisan support in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency.
In 2008, Congress established procedures designed to protect youthful victims of human trafficking. The statute required that unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border be transferred within 72 hours to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and, where possible, released to U.S.-based relatives pending a hearing on their immigration status. But due to a months-long backlog, the wait for a hearing has amounted to an extended stay. Traffickers in Central America (misleadingly) advertised this as a new form of legal entry, stimulating so much migration by children that the system is swamped.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Central America now, as part of an administration effort to put out a more accurate message. It would help if President Obama himself would directly address Central Americans, too. The fact is that the vast majority of children who enter the United States now won’t be eligible for remaining legally under any immigration reform proposal, so they ultimately face removal or life in the United States as undocumented aliens.
Better information, however, can accomplish only so much. The U.S. government must create facts on the ground, showing would-be migrants and their families that the system cannot be manipulated and that this dangerous voyage does not pay. That means deploying more judges, Central American consular officials and other administrative resources to expedite hearings — most of which will, under the existing law, result in removal orders and, one hopes, effective deterrence of this unconscionably chaotic flow of children.
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Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post.