Immigration Surge or Refugee Crisis?

A migration expert explains the growing crisis of childhood immigration at the southern United States border.

In the past seven months, some 47,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the southern United States border, fleeing an epidemic of gang violence and poverty in their home countries. According to some estimates, that figure could surpass 100,000 before year’s end. Against the backdrop of a polarized Capitol Hill debate on comprehensive immigration reform, these children have become political football, with some members of Congress blaming the Obama administration policies for the influx.  

Anthropologist Dr. Jill Koyama is an expert on human migration and refugees. In this Q&A, writer Timothy Villareal and Koyama discuss the U.S. government response to the migration crises — and what regular citizens can do to help these kids in dire need of care.

President Obama has described the influx of migrant children from Central America as “an urgent humanitarian situation” and one that requires “a unified and coordinated federal response.” What is your assessment of the Obama administration’s handling of this influx thus far?

So far, the Obama administration’s approach to this humanitarian crisis verges on inhumane.

Within the last two weeks, emergency shelters have been set up on military bases, and makeshift processing centers, including a warehouse without windows or internal plumbing at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Ariz., are now temporarily housing thousands of these children. These emergency shelters are accommodating only a small fraction of the children, and it isn’t clear whether they are an improvement from what the Obama administration had been doing, which was dumping groups of unaccompanied migrant children, along with other groups of Central American and Mexican women with children, at bus stations in Phoenix and Tucson. Most spent a day or a night at the bus stations, where local volunteers, not government officials, provided them with food, water, and other necessities, like formula and diapers.

Many of the children are leaving their homes because of violence or abuse in their countries, or in their homes, and could be eligible for asylum. Unfortunately, most will not have adequate legal services to make this case. So, to me, what the government is referring to as an immigration “surge” is more of a refugee issue. For now, Congress has allocated $2 billion to deal with the current flow of unaccompanied migrant youth but no federal plan of action has been made public.  

What actions does President Obama need to take right now to reverse this humanitarian crisis before it gets any worse?

I doubt if the crisis can be reversed at this point, as the Obama administration and Congress continue to operate in a reactionary mode, creating piecemeal services, shelters, and processes for these migrant children. In order to address this crisis and prevent its future spread, a concerted effort will need to be made. Multiple entities in the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services, will need to find ways to work with border states, regional officials, and localized immigrant advocacy groups across the U.S.-Mexican border. They’ll need to establish a well-connected and funded network of health, housing, and legal services to address the immediate needs of the migrants. Extended services, such as education and mental health supports, will need to follow.

Long term, the Obama administration needs to push federal immigration reform and find a path toward collaboration with Republican legislators, who, despite their refusal to move reform forward until now, must also understand that their stance will not be popular among the fastest growing population of voters, Latinos in the U.S. Moreover, two recent polls show that Americans, including many conservative Republicans, support immigration reform.

More broadly, the federal government needs to rethink the way we intervene in crises across the world. The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could end up costing as much as $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household, and as I write this, militants are staging resurgence in Iraq, taking control of two main cities less than three years after America officially ended its military presence there. I want the government to reprioritize our country’s global efforts to address poverty and violence that riddles countries like the ones in Central America from which so many young migrants are being forced to flee.

There seems to be a mood of international withdrawal in the country, especially as concerns any use of the U.S. military. Yet given the extreme violence that these migrant children and families are facing, would you be supportive of some kind of coordination program wherein the United States, Canada and Mexico could work with Central American governments to create non-militarized, coastal safe havens to provide proper nutrition and medical care for these kids?

You pose a very interesting idea. I am in favor of any long-term process, like the one you theoretically pose. I could imagine a coordinated collective impact project that was spearheaded by a global organization such as the International Rescue Committee with the collaboration of several countries, including, as you suggest, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I would also want to see Central American countries involved in the development and ongoing implementation of such a project, if possible.

That said, I think one of the dangers of creating what you and I might envision as “safe havens,” is long-term residence in these places. That is, unfortunately, what happens to many refugees, who spend years, if not decades, in refugee camps. Still, I think we need to get groups of people who work with immigrants, internally displaced persons, asylum-seekers, and refugees together, talking about these sorts of solutions, and also providing the U.S. government with some more creative and moral options.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Republican senators assigned blame for this massive influx of migrant minors to the Obama administration’s lax immigration policies. Senator Ted Cruz in particular pointed to the administration’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memo as an incentive to Central American parents and children to enter the U.S. illegally, as they believe that the U.S. government will not deport them. Does Senator Cruz have a rational basis for his assertions? 

The comments of Senator Cruz clearly reflect rumors that have been circulating in the media for the past two weeks. Central American parents may also believe the rumors. Some say that they were told  usually by smugglers to whom they then paid large sums of money for transport — that children, and women with children, would spend a couple of nights in jail and then be released in the U.S. At first glance, this seems to be the case. The unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America who cross the border are entitled to special protections, and unlike adults, are not put directly into deportation proceedings. However, what is not understood is that after they are released, they face possible deportation. They must register with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within 15 days. Of course, smugglers do not share this consequential information when trying to coerce potential customers to migrate.

Senator Cruz seems also to twist the truth; the new arrivals are not protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which applies to individuals were under the age of 31 years as of June 2012, who came to the U.S. while under the ages of 16, have continuously resided in the US for a five-year period, who are currently in school or the military, and have not been convicted of a felony offense or significant misdemeanor.

In that Senate Judiciary Hearing, Senator Cruz also brought up the horrific abuses these children suffer at the hands of smugglers bringing them to the U.S., including sexual abuse. He described these Central American parents as “handing over their children to global criminal cartels.” As a scholar who has studied refugee parents, what are your thoughts on this senator’s intimation that the parents of these particular children are responsible for the horrendous suffering of their kids, both en route and when they reach the U.S.? 

Senator Cruz’s comments depicting Central American parents as uncaring, or worse, abusive for sending their children to the U.S. completely ignores the realities which these families face in their home countries. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as regions in Mexico, are riddled with persistent violence, organized crime, abject poverty, and high-pressure gang recruitment of children. Children there are killed, kidnapped, and sometimes sold into prostitution. Their education systems are broken and futures are bleak. To send their children north is a substantial sacrifice for most parents, who not only go into debt to pay the smugglers, but who face the possibility of never again seeing their children.

These parents, like those of the refugees with whom I have known for years, want their children to have opportunities they are unable to have in their home countries, even it means putting their children on a dangerous journey. I found similar patterns in my earlier anthropological studies of Mexican migrant families working in California; those parents often made the difficult choice of leaving their children in the U.S. to get an education when they returned to Mexico.

We have witnessed great acts of courage and sacrifice as mothers, fathers, and extended adult family members do all they can do to keep their children alive. Some parents from Central America, faced with few choices for securing better lives for their children are sending them across the Mexican-U.S. border.

Many have attributed the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to his Republican primary challenger’s staunch, and comparatively firm, stance against comprehensive immigration reform. Cantor’s successful challenger, David Brat, recently told one media outlet, “Once you announced that kids are welcome, they’re going to head in.” 

Given the child migrant humanitarian crisis now unfolding, especially the Arizona shelter that is housing thousands of children with no access to internal plumbing, Mr. Brat’s actual use of the word “welcome” seems wholly out of touch with our bureaucratic reality. Brat’s comments are particularly interesting given his frequent reminders to voters of his Judeo-Christian values.

Although the primary defeat of Eric Cantor has been blamed on his “soft” stance on immigration, there is not actually much support for that explanation. Cantor himself has never been seen as “welcoming” to immigrants by immigrant advocacy groups. In contrast, local humanitarian and immigrant advocacy groups have consistently provided humane care for border-crossers, and from them, we can see how to offer help.

You’ve already mentioned that there are local volunteers in Arizona who are helping to provide these kids with food, water, diapers, and other essentials. What concrete actions can Americans all around the country, from all faiths or no particular faith, do to help out in this humanitarian crisis and give these kids the welcome they so deserve as children of God?

To help with this acute flow of migrants, we can offer immediate monetary support, transportation, and basic life essentials to local migrant support organizations. Legal and mental health professionals can also offer their expertise.

Here in Tucson, for example, volunteers like Laurie Melrood, a family and immigrant rights advocate, have been temporarily housing women and children from Guatemala for months as they pass through Tucson. Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, or the Coalition for Human Rights, a Tucson-based organization, and a legal defender for Pima County, told me that local groups can’t wait for federal immigration reform. Rather, she says, they do what they can, bit by bit, individual migrant by individual migrant.

The rest of us shouldn’t wait either.

Image via Shutterstock.

Written by

  • Martin Hughes

    What must be done to make life in Central America bearable?

  • Laura Penny

    “These parents, like those of the refugees with whom I have known for
    years, want their children to have opportunities they are unable to have
    in their home countries…” In other words, these parents are no different than parents the world over who only want their children to have opportunities they never had, and who make difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching decisions to achieve that. I would think the risk and uncertainty of migration pales in comparison to watching your children starve, or being sold into slavery, or brutalized.