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Humanitarian Crisis at Our Border? Let’s Rethink Our Approach

Women's Refugee Commission - Mon, 2 Jun 2014 16:37 GMT
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Artwork at the U.S./Mexico border at Nogales shows people fleeing violence in Central America.
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Lawmakers are mad, and they should be. Advocates are mad, and they should be, too. Right now, incredibly vulnerable people are being put in harm’s way every day in this country. Thousands of children are fleeing their homes in Central America and risking their lives by traveling―without parents or other adult relatives―to seek safety in the United States. These children are getting younger and younger, and more girls are making the journey in search of safety. Families traveling with small children are presenting themselves at our ports of entry to ask for asylum. These people are fleeing horrific violence perpetrated by organized criminals and gangs in their home countries. Their governments do not have the resources they need to protect their own citizens.

Our government does not have adequate resources to deal with these vulnerable migrants. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents along the Southwest border feel ill equipped to screen and care for them. Facilities along the border are not appropriate for holding children and families for long periods. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) doesn't have the resources it needs to adequately care for unaccompanied children. There are not enough attorneys available to represent these children and asylum seekers in complex adversarial court proceedings. And there are not enough judges to hear their cases.

We are in a situation where everyone is mad and really frightened about the reality of what is happening, but we are looking at this the wrong way.

Everyone sees children filling border patrol stations and families huddled in rooms at ports of entry. They see an air force base being used as an emergency shelter for the second time in three years. They see an expensive migration flow that must be stopped. Yes, these people are migrants, but this is not a migration issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and foreign policy issue that the United States needs to address in a completely different way than it is currently doing.

Once the government recognized that the initial influx of unaccompanied children and adult asylum seekers fleeing Central America was not a temporary issue, but rather a trend with no foreseeable end, it began working on how to try and stop the flow. It created a "Don't migrate" campaign in the hopes that by educating people on the dangers of illegal crossings they would decide to stay home instead of coming to the United States. The government has begun collaborating with Mexican migration officials in Southern Mexico to help them stop migrants before they make it to the United States. It has instructed U.S. asylum officers to exercise more scrutiny in evaluating persecution claims and to not approve so many cases. It has reduced―and in some cases effectively eliminated―important protections designed to ensure children are not put in harm’s way. Some people in Congress are even turning the lives of these migrants into a way to score political points.

None of these solutions will work in the long term.

None of these solutions will stop people who fear for their lives from coming and looking for protection in a safe country with strong rule of law like the United States.

None of these solutions will save money over time.

What these solutions do is undermine fundamental human rights and due process protections. They simply kick the can down the road.

This is not a short-term cost issue that appropriators can fix in one fiscal year. This is not something that can be addressed only by the agencies tasked with enforcing our immigration laws. This is a regional humanitarian crisis that the United States must address in the same way it would if the problem was in Africa or the Middle East. We should be using the same kind of vocabulary we are accustomed to using for similar crises around the world and think about these kids and asylum seekers not as illegal immigrants, but rather as, victims of war, people who deserve our protection. When the story of the Lost Boys escaping violence in Sudan was told, they were heralded for their bravery. Books were written, movies were made and parades were thrown. The media painted sympathetic portraits of them. When these Lost Boys and Girls from Central America come to the United States, these children, who also possess huge amounts of strength, valor and grit in face of terrible situations, are treated as illegal aliens.

If our government continues to assume that migrants from Central America are only coming to the United States to work or to take advantage of some sort of non-existent immigration reform, it will be in the same position next year and the year after that.

Congressional appropriators have put pressure on the agencies responsible for executing our immigration laws to address this current situation in a "cheaper" manner. But that is not going to solve our problems. If we don't take a look at our foreign policy and international aid to Central America and help their governments to protect their own citizens, the most vulnerable people in these countries will continue to face horrific violence and a hopeless future. We can't expect CBP, ORR or the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to identify ways to stem this flow on the cheap. We instead need to think about what the Department of State, US Agency for International Development and particularly the Central America Regional Security Initiative must do, and to re-evaluate their commitment to economic stability and improved security in this region so people can stay in their homes. If we can't work regionally in collaboration with other countries to help Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador regain control from the organized crime in their countries that is killing their people, Central Americans’ only hope will be to migrate and seek protection in places like Panama or the United States to find safety.

Our government needs to step back, take a breath and look more broadly at the root causes of this problem. Illegal migration to the United States is a symptom of a deeper quandary we must help fix. If we can do that, if we can ensure children and families don't have to migrate, that they can stay safe in their communities and contribute to the development of their countries, we will solve our problems of overcrowded border stations and overwhelmed immigration courts.

It is going to take work, but it is time to roll up our sleeves, stop searching for a quick fix and commit to doing this work for the long haul. The rewards will be many.

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