It is a crisis that built slowly in plain view but still managed to shock authorities in its scale and tragedy. In less than a year a wave of nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children have made their way across the United States’ southern border, overwhelming the agencies in place to care for them, house them and ultimately, often, to deport them.
By year’s end it is expected 90,000 will arrive and according to an administration estimate 150,000 children from Central America will travel through Mexico to arrive alone at the border in 2015.
So far the response has been typical of governance in this divided nation. Fingers have been pointed and blame laid. Congress has failed to pass legislation to address the causes of the exodus, reform an immigration system everyone agrees is broken and fund an adequate response. Democratic Party proposals have been stymied by Republicans who are also at war with themselves on the issue.
The surge started around October 2013 and has built steadily since then, but only began making headlines in America earlier this year when authorities in Texas had to transfer child migrants to other states when their own facilities filled and photos of children crowded into pens and sleeping in rows on floors circulated.
When buses carrying children who had come over the border in Texas arrived at a facility in California they were greeted by a crowd of protesters bearing signs that read “No new taxes, no new illegals” and “No vacancy, try the White House.” One woman shouted at the children on the bus, “We don’t want you! Nobody wants you!”
They cheered when the buses turned back, with one man declaring that they had “defeated the enemy”. In fact the children were taken to temporary accommodation nearby.
With national attention now focused on the problem, America’s ongoing debate over immigration flared bitterly.
Many conservatives blame President Barack Obama for inviting the surge of children by signalling that he wants to reform the immigration system to offer a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants thought to be living in the US.
Obama’s most paranoid political opponents believe that he is seeking to create a permanent Democratic majority by changing the nation’s demographics – in the last presidential election Obama won 71 per cent of the Latino vote in 2012 to Mitt Romney’s 27 per cent.
In truth it does appear the children are arriving in part due to US policy, though it has more to do with a law passed by George W. Bush in 2008, that allows minors who cross America’s land borders to stay in the US with relatives or guardians until their claims for asylum are heard. The courts are so overwhelmed with cases that the process can now take years. This has led to a belief in parts of Central America that minors are given preferential treatment under US law.
In reality though the surge in arrivals has far more to do with conditions in Central America. Many children are escaping endless poverty. Others are fleeing horrifying violence.
While the gang warfare that broke out in Mexico appears to have stabilised, criminal gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have unleashed a wave of violence.
In Honduras the murder rate has climbed to 90.4 per 100,000, the highest in the world, according to a United Nations report. The figure in El Salvador, the nation with the fourth highest rate is 41.2 and in Guatemala it is 39.9.
“The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,” a mother of two said. “That’s the idea, to leave.”
Children have told authorities in the US that they face either conscription into the drug gangs or torture and death.
Many parents have decided that their children are safer risking the journey up through Mexico in the hands of smugglers in the hope they will be allowed to remain in the US. The journey itself is fraught with danger. NPR reported on Friday that an 11-year-old girl being housed in the District of Columbia was found to be pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. According to reports doctors are now testing children as young as nine for HIV.
Once in the US the children are kept in protective custody unless a family member or guardian can be found to house them until their case is heard.
With Texas overwhelmed many are being sent to other parts of the country, but such is the politics of immigration in the US that this is a fraught process. Some governors and even mayors have shored-up hardline images in the lead-up to the November mid-term elections by publicly refusing any assistance.
Others have tried to walk a more complicated line. Martin O’Malley is the Democratic Governor of Maryland and is widely thought to be positioning himself for a White House run in 2016. He has supported abortion rights, wind farms and gay marriage, and has spoken movingly about the “humanitarian plight” of the child migrants. But even he has sought to prevent the federal government from stationing migrant children in an empty US Army warehouse outside Baltimore, his state’s capital.
In Maine, Tea Party Republican Governor Paul LaPage complained about the presence of migrant children in his state when only eight have been placed there.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat finishing his final term, has offered his state as a refuge for migrant children, a position that has drawn praise and scorn.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a conservative Republican, sent national guardsmen to the border, a move mocked by many as nothing more than public relations since the guardsmen do not have the authority to arrest anyone and the children are not trying to evade detention, they are turning themselves over to the authorities.
In early July President Obama asked Congress to pass a bill allocating $US3.7 billion to address the crisis. The funding was to improve facilities, take on more staff in critical services and hire more lawyers and judges to process the children. A bill authorising $US2.7 billion was ultimately blocked by Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate.
The President “is asking to use billions of taxpayer dollars without accountability or a plan in place to actually stop the border crisis,” Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
On Thursday the Republican-dominated House of Representatives was to have voted on a GOP proposal for $US659 million in spending. In the end though Republicans pulled their bill after internal feuding.
While Democrats are more or less united in their desire for broad immigration reform, the issue divides Republicans. The Republican caucus was set to leave Washington on Friday for the summer recess, but has decided to stay on in the capital in an effort to pass a bill. Many members are calling for spending to be directed to increasing border patrols rather than on social services and want to see laws changed to speed up deportations.
More broadly the Tea Party right opposes any plan to grant amnesty to long-term undocumented immigrants, even those who were born in the country. One Republican firebrand, congressman Steve King from Iowa infamously said last year that for every child of illegal immigrants “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” As the November mid-term elections approach many of the right are using the issue to energise support and drum up donations.
King has said Republicans would immediately move to impeach Obama should the President use his executive authority to step around Congress and introduce his own reforms. The threat seems to delight the White House which is using it as an example of conservative extremism. For days now Democrats have been using the issue in a flurry of advertisements calling for donations.
But establishment Republicans believe some form of amnesty is necessary, as do key Republican allies including many churches and the Chamber of Commerce, which believes labour shortages are dampening America’s economic recovery.
The conservative columnist George Will, appearing on the Fox News Channel, said the migrant children should be allowed to stay in the US. “My view is that we have to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America. You're going to go to school and get a job and become Americans'," Will said.
“We have 3141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can't assimilate these eight-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous.”
Democrats want to see not only relief for the struggling border agencies but also broad-based immigration reform and Obama is known to view such reform as a legacy issue for him. It would also serve to entrench the support Democrats have already won among the Hispanic community. Since the 2012 election Obama has been strictly enforcing immigration and deportation laws in the hope he can win Republican support for reform. Patience is wearing thin among immigration advocates, some of whom have taken to calling him the “deporter in chief”.
The public seems more sympathetic to the children than many politicians. According to a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 69 per cent of Americans consider the children refugees who should be allowed to stay “if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home country.” Fifty-six per cent believe families sending their children from Central America were acting to protect them from violence, while 38 per cent believe the families are “taking advantage of American good will” to stay illegally in the US. Meanwhile, 58 per cent of Americans want Congress to pass a law giving illegal immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship.
Last Friday Obama met with presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador, and delivered them a tough message. Not many of the children, he said, would qualify for humanitarian relief or refugee status. "There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is a humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," Obama said after talks with the leaders. "But I think it's important to recognise that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number.”
He said that children without proper claims would be repatriated, and that though America had compassion for them a deterrent was necessary.
Speaking with the Washington Post before the meeting President Hernandez noted that the US bore some responsibility for his nation’s plight.
“Your country has enormous responsibility for this,” Hernandez said..
"The problem of narco-trafficking generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this [the United States] is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. That’s leaving us with such an enormous loss of life.”