Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have illegally crossed the U.S. southern boarder in the past nine months, fleeing countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to escape poverty and violence. President Barack Obama has called the issue a “humanitarian situation.” It’s also a situation that has major political implications ahead of the U.S. midterm elections this fall. Here, Rachel Rosenbloom, an immigration policy expert and associate professor of law at Northeastern University, explains the cause of this surge and what the federal government’s next step should be.
What is at the center of this crisis at the U.S. southern border? Is there any part of the issue that isn’t receiving enough attention?
The real crisis is the epidemic levels of violence occurring in the countries these children are fleeing from. For the U.S., the situation at the border is not a crisis, but rather a logistical challenge that the federal government should be able to handle as it has handled influxes of refugees in the past.
The situation has focused public attention on the rising levels of gang violence in Central America, but we should also be paying attention to the fact that many of these children have been separated from their parents for many years by our broken immigration system. In some cases, the parents are lawfully present in the U.S., but they have not been able to reunite with their children. The separation of families is itself a contributing factor to the crisis in Central America.
How does the 2008 anti-human-trafficking law, which affords greater legal protections to unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries than those who arrive illegally from Mexico or Canada, factor into the current situation?
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, provides procedural safeguards to ensure that unaccompanied minors are able to exercise their right to seek asylum and other forms of relief within the U.S. Congress is currently considering eliminating these protections. This would be a step backward. The safeguards should be maintained, and should be expanded to fully include unaccompanied minors from contiguous countries as well.
On Friday President Obama met with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—the three countries from which most of the children are immigrating. He has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding, though congressional leaders have weighed alternative plans. In your view, what’s the most important next step the government must take to address this crisis?
The most important first step is to provide every child at the border with an adequate hearing to determine the merits of his or her claim, as our government is obligated to do under international law. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that 58 percent of the children arriving at the border may qualify for protection under international law. In addition, many others may qualify for other forms of relief under U.S. law. In the long term, Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the U.S. needs to play a positive role in addressing the root causes of gang violence in Central America.