Let´s be honest. The large number of unaccompanied children (about six hundred per day) trying to enter the United States at our southern border reveals serious problems. Nevertheless, problems can be transformed into opportunities when they are faced head on.
Although the Biden administration does not want to call this situation a crisis, it truly is. In fact, there are three principal crises.
- The crisis in the “Northern Triangle” countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
- The crisis in our own broken immigration system, especially regarding the kids at the border.
- The crisis on the Mexican side of our border.
Let’s look briefly at each crisis and then analyze the pros and cons of the difficult options before us.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are three of the poorest countries in the Americas. They also have some of the highest rates of murder and gang violence in the world. Their governments are guilty of more than their share of mismanagement and corruption. Many U.S. jobs have been outsourced to the area, especially to El Salvador, but this has barely put a dent in the rampant poverty. Powerful hurricanes have added to their economic woes. The United States has not been an innocent bystander. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments have emerged in these countries, all too frequently with support from the U.S. government. This violence and poverty are a significant push factor of migration, thrusting Central Americans to flee their countries. If you or I were parents of young teenaged sons who were pressured to join a gang or daughters likely to be raped, we would do almost anything to change the situation or to try to escape.
The U.S. immigration system has been broken for decades. The 1986 immigration bill backed by the Republican president Reagan and the Democrat controlled congress was good legislation, but it was not sufficiently enforced. Latin American immigrants (documented or not) were welcomed to fill many jobs in the boom economy during the Clinton administration (1993-2001). After 9/11, there were several attempts to bring about comprehensive immigration reform with leadership by presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, but there was not sufficient bipartisan support in Congress to get it passed (sounds familiar). Obama became known as Deporter-in-Chief, having deported more undocumented immigrants than any of his predecessors. President Trump implemented an even tougher policy, where undocumented immigrant parents were separated from their children at the border to provide a “deterrent” to more immigration. In my eyes, and in the sight of most North Americans, this was inhumane. Detainment camps that housed thousands of Central Americans sprung up on the Mexican side of the border. It is still a horrific crisis, but because it takes place in Mexico, it is “out of sight”, and we mistakenly believe it is not happening or that it is not our problem.
As is quite evident, the U.S. has given “a mixed message” to our Latin American neighbors. “Do not immigrate to our country unless you do it through the very limited legal process. But if you come without documents, you will probably find employment on our farms or in construction or landscaping. Even with low wages and few or no benefits, life is probably better here for your than in your countries of origin.”
Upon taking office in January, President Biden reversed many of Trump’s policies with more “humane” approaches. Although the immigration authorities immediately deport most adults and families at the border, unaccompanied children are allowed to stay in detention/processing centers on the U.S. side of the border until they can be placed under the care of their relatives (with or without documents) in the United States. Biden did not believe it was right for these kids to be turned away and forced to make the difficult journey back to Central America, nor to be dumped on the Mexican side. This is another mixed message. The border is generally “closed” for adults and families, but it is “open” for unaccompanied minors. This has created the large numbers of kids at the border, where even 20-year-old young men and women try to pass for minors (under the age of 18). The detention centers are already filled to maximum occupancy and are not legally permitted to be long-term care facilities. As a consequence, the Biden administration is scrambling to find government and non-governmental (NGO) alternatives.
We are facing difficult situations. These are true crises. The following is my humble attempt to address the options before us. Sincere people of good will can and do disagree on these issues but let respectful and thoughtful debate characterize us.
- Do nothing regarding Central America. I am very aware that neither I individually nor my country’s government can solve all the poverty and violence problems throughout the world, not even in a relatively small region like Central America. Even when there are good intentions, they frequently become tainted by governments and corporations that seek their own interests more than the wellbeing of others. But my commitment to follow Jesus will not let me just wring my hands in despair. I must, and can, do something.
- Long term solutions must be implemented in Central America that reduce the “push factors” that force people to leave their countries. It is possible for well thought out policies to be implemented that truly improve most people’s financial wellbeing, health and safety. Making education, potable water, and health care (like Covid-19 vaccines) more available are good examples. This is primarily the responsibility of Central Americans and their governments, but the actions of those in other countries make the situation better or worse. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), similar to the NAFTA agreement, had serious flaws that actually worsened the situation for many Central Americans. In order to not let corrupt politicians siphon off funds destined for good projects, I personally prefer giving greater emphasis to nongovernmental organizations that promote fair trade coffee or other products. See Fair Trade Handmade Gifts & Crafts from International Artisans – Ten Thousand Villages.
- Central American immigrant children could be put on buses and returned to their home countries. This policy has been implemented for years in Mexico where unaccompanied minors have been taken into custody and returned to Central America. I personally witnessed this in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala where busloads of Guatemalan youth were brought back to their country, dropped off at an NGO immigrant center until they could be reunited with their families. The kids were perceived as “failures” because they did not make it to the promised land of “el Norte” where they could find work and send back very needed money to their families. Mexico and the U.S. could continue this policy, but it does not solve the real problems of Central Americans. In fact, it lowers the self-esteem of these youth, making them even more likely to fall into the lure or threat of gangs.
- The Biden administration could turn away these unaccompanied children at the border and have Mexico deal with the “problem”. Mexican relief agencies would not have the language barriers that many U.S. organizations have, but their lack of resources means that thousands of youth would remain in detention camps on the Mexican side of the border. This is just passing the buck to others.
- The Biden administration is beginning to re-implement the Central American Minors program that was suspended by Trump (See Restarting the Central American Minors Program – United States Department of State). This program provides a safe, legal way to reunite children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with their parents or guardians who are legally present in the U.S. This is a good partial solution. I would expand it to include other relatives who are lawfully in our country, such as aunts, uncles, and grandparents. A bolder, but more comprehensive, solution would be to extend the TPS (Temporary Protected Status – currently granted to some Nicaraguans and Hondurans) to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala. Our government would need to act quickly but granting this legal status to them would permit them to receive the immigrant kids. Some critics would balk at “rewarding” these undocumented immigrants, but I believe it to be the “lesser of the evils” and it would fairly quickly reunite the majority of the kids at the border with loving relatives.
- There is a desperate need for comprehensive immigration reform so that the 10-12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. come out of the shadows, pay their fines and taxes, get on a pathway to legality, and become fully participating citizens in our country. This legislation might need to be broken down into different components in order to achieve the necessary 60 votes in the Senate. For example, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens (Republicans and Democrats) are in favor of the Dreamers (those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were children) obtaining legality. The Dreamer bill might come before Congress in the next few weeks.
- The situation at the border will not improve quickly unless many people provide sensible alternatives. Relief organizations can provide funding and temporary housing. Our political representatives can approve the extension of the TPS and have the guts to reach an agreement on a comprehensive immigration reform.
There are tough options before us. Option 5 seems to me to be one of the better short-term solutions. Let us not step away from the costly love required of us.