Noted documentary photographer Dorothea Lange is credited with the observation that “while there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.” Her insights into perspective and the photographic process are legendary and apply well beyond that realm.
In recent weeks we’ve been bombarded with news reports about the “flood” of children into the United States from a section of Central America known as the Northern Triangle, specifically, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The reports have been loud and shrill as they demand this “scourge infecting our nation” be wiped out. “They” are coming to the United States because they’ve heard there’s a free pass into the country for those who are unaccompanied children or adult females with minors.
Given our nation’s lax enforcement of its immigration laws, so the argument goes, the United States is now being inundated with thousands of “illegal aliens” with no end in sight. In fact, Rep. Rich Nugent (R-FL), a member of Congress seeking reelection in November, told listeners in a recent radio interview in Ocala, Florida that many of these young children are connected to gangs and are from cultures of violence. He declared “when you have those types coming across the border, they’re not children at that point.
These kids have been brought up in a culture of thievery. A culture of murder, of rape. And now we are going to infuse them into the American culture. It’s just ludicrous.”
Critics lambast the Obama administration for lax enforcement of our immigration laws and poor leadership on this mounting crisis. Members of the President’s own party, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) for example, have even raised the Bush Administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina as an example of Obama’s failed leadership.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has gone so far as to demand that President Obama terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and begin deporting those holding that status “to send a message” to those children thinking about fleeing here. So what is to be done? For the critics, nothing short of expedited removal without a hearing, due process, or an opportunity for these young people to tell their stories about their trek hundreds of miles northward to the United States.
But, is this the whole story? Fortunately, cooler heads have begun to prevail and both news reports and studies discussing the factors behind the migration of young people to the United States are now coming to light with a more coherent and nuanced perspective.
Recent reports by the Center for American Progress (“The Surge of Unaccompanied Children from Central America”) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (“Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection”) have cut through the hysteria and offered powerful insights into the basis for their flight from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And, the factors are intriguing.
First and significantly, the current movement of young people is different from that of even a few years ago. The fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border is 12 and under with almost half of them being girls.
Second, interviews with a sample of those children point to flight from organized criminal violence and poverty. Interestingly, 2012 data provided by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime show those three countries with some of the highest per-capita homicide rates in the world; Honduras the highest with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, El Salvador fourth with 41.2 homicides per 100,000 people, and Guatemala fifth at 39.9 homicides per 100,000 people.
Third, countries surrounding Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are themselves encountering escalating numbers of young people fleeing the grim conditions there. In 2013, alone, the number of people seeking asylum in surrounding countries increased a phenomenal 712 percent from 2008 levels.
Something is going on here and it’s not lax enforcement of our immigration laws. That’s too simplistic. The problem is more complex and calls for coordinated and cooperative action on the part of Central America, Mexico, and the United States to make those countries safer for its residents. That means addressing the prevalent crime and violence through, among other things, development of those countries’ economies, strengthening the rule of law, reducing corruption, and professionalizing the police and judiciary. And, in fact, President Obama recently met with leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala where these issues came to the fore. No small feat and no doubt talks will continue for some time about how best to meet those long-term objectives.
For the short term, however, something more immediate needs to be done and that means first and foremost according the children the protection of our laws and the right to pursue whatever relief they may be deemed eligible for. But, perhaps to eliminate the dangers of travel through one or more countries before reaching the United States, a more appropriate, expedient, and systematic mechanism providing for various forms of humanitarian relief may be to implement screening in those countries themselves. The proposal has merit and one of several options currently under review by the Obama administration.
Thankfully, our nation is having a serious and responsible discussion about how best to deal with this problem in both the short and long term. Ultimately, we continue to be a nation of immigrants with a respect for due process and the rule of law.
Perspective is important. Yes, one might even say it’s everything.
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers.