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Child immigrants creating US border crisis

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMore than 90% of the children held by the US Border Patrol come from Central America

There is a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing into the US along its southern border that is overwhelming US facilities and creating a political dilemma for President Barack Obama.

In the 2013 fiscal year, the US Border Patrol caught 38,833 juveniles attempting to enter the country - a 59% increase from the previous year and a 142% rise from 2011. This year, the US has already apprehended about 47,000, according to government figures, and the number is estimated to grow to more than 60,000 by the time the current fiscal year ends in October.

Ian Gordon of Mother Jones offers his take on the reasons behind this growing trend:

Many of the kids are coming to help a family in crushing poverty. Some are trying to join a parent who left years ago, before the recession and increased border enforcement slowed down adult immigration. Still others are leaving because of violence from family members and gangs.

The recent influx has also been attributed to rumours the US is offering amnesty to children who make it across the border. Although Mr Obama has instituted a programme of two-year deferments to some underage undocumented immigrants, that applies only to those who have lived in the country continuously since 2007.

Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, says there is little evidence that the amnesty rumours are the cause of the recent influx.

"It seems to be quite clear that what is driving this is what's happening in their home countries," she said in a media conference call on 2 June.

The New York Times reports, however, that a "subtle shift in the way the United States treats minors" can't be discounted.

"That perception has inspired parents who have not seen their children for years to hire so-called coyotes, guides often associated with organized crime, to bring them north," writes Times reporter Frances Robles. "It has prompted other parents to make the trip with toddlers in tow, something rarely seen before in the region."

The end result is the US holding a growing number of unaccompanied juveniles - the ones who aren't Mexican citizens and can't immediately be sent back across the border - in detention facilities, where they wait to undergo the same slow deportation process as adults. More than 90% come from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

image copyrightAP
image captionA bus containing detained children enters the US Border Patrol facility in Nogales, Arizona

In 2013 there were 80 shelters run by the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement holding around 25,000 children at an estimated cost of $2.28b (£1.34b). Last week reports surfaced that 700 migrants - including pregnant teens and children as young as one - were being housed in an empty government warehouse in Nogales, Arizona, where they were sleeping on plastic cots.

The humanitarian crisis is now morphing into a political one for President Barack Obama, as reports spread of overcrowding and unsafe conditions in many of the facilities. His administration recently requested an additional $1.4b (£0.82b) to meet the rising costs of transporting, housing, feeding and educating the minors in US custody.

On Friday Buzzfeed's John Stanton reported that the Obama administration plans to move "as many as 1,000" detainees from overcrowded centres in Texas to ones in Baltimore, Maryland and Richmond, Virginia.

In addition, Vice-President Joe Biden is heading to Guatemala to warn of the dangers of illegal immigration and, according to Politico, "make clear that recently arriving children are not eligible for [the deferred deportation programme] or earned citizenship provisions in current immigration reform legislation".

Mr Obama is in a "political jam", writes the Washington Post's Greg Sargent:

The administration is constrained from stating flatly that all of these unaccompanied migrants will be deported immediately. That's partly because under current law unaccompanied minors must be channelled into legal proceedings that either end in deportation or reunification with family members. But it's also because, at a time when Obama is taking heavy fire for not doing more to ease deportations, taking a harder line on deportations is politically dicey.

If the president isn't forceful enough, Sargent writes, he opens himself up to conservative attacks for endorsing a permissive immigration policy that encourages illegal immigration.

To wit, this recent line from the Right Scoop blog post: "Obama has basically hung an 'Illegals Welcome' sign over American's proverbial doorpost with his amnesty policies."

It's all a plot by Mr Obama, says former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to create a humanitarian crisis that advances his immigration priorities.

"Obama's refusal to enforce immigration laws and his blatant suggestion that his chosen illegal activity will be rewarded are proof of his tyrannical tactics," she writes on her Facebook page.

The Obama administration is also taking fire from those who want him to take unilateral action to welcome the detained children.

"It's a mess," writes syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette for "US officials don't have the faintest idea of what to do with the influx, even though they had advanced warning that this crisis was coming."

He continues:

From all appearances, the border kids aren't immigrants. They're refugees. They're here because they couldn't be anywhere else, and they had no choice but to come. We're supposed to take in people like this, and offer them safe haven.

To do otherwise, he says, is cowardly.

The plight of the detained children is putting a painfully human face on the immigration issue at a time when the politics surrounding immigration reform have become toxic on the right and a possible source of increased Hispanic turnout in the mid-term election for the left.

It's an inconvenient reality that is intruding on a political battle that most seemingly would prefer to wage rhetorically.

Related Topics

  • Refugees and asylum seekers
  • Children
  • US politics

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