Influx of children shows urgent need for immigration reform

THE FACT that families in South and Central America are essentially giving up their children on the slender hope that they might be allowed to stay in the United States attests to the level of misery caused by Congress’s failure to approve a guest-worker program and comprehensive immigration reform.

Border facilities are rapidly filling with tens of thousands of child detainees, unaccompanied minors captured at the border, most of them fleeing Central America. Since October alone, more than 47,000 children under 18 have been detained trying to enter the US illegally without an adult — almost twice as many as last year. This influx has caused a deep strain on federal agencies involved in immigration enforcement at the border and on child welfare agencies, and has prompted President Obama to declare it an urgent humanitarian crisis.

The inescapable lack of economic opportunity, as well as increasing unrest and violence in Honduras and Guatemala, has no doubt contributed to the alarming upward trend in the number of minors arriving at the border without a parent or a guardian. (Projections put the number of minor arrivals at over 100,000 next year.) But even the Obama administration has alluded to the belief, rooted in false rumors spread in Central America, that children won’t be deported from the United States. This seems to be a misunderstanding of Obama’s decision to allow some students and members of the military who were brought to the United States as small children to remain here, and perhaps also of support among some Republicans for their version of the DREAM Act, which would do much the same thing.

But, at bottom, it simply underscores the urgency and desperation felt among immigrant families to reunite and to flee poverty and violence. That a complaint filed by legal assistance groups last weekuncovered systemic abuse of detained minors at the border just adds insult to injury. For now, the situation has been dealt with using the same Band-Aid approach: President Obama asked FEMA to provide more shelter and relief for the children in custody. But what’s needed is for Republican leaders to stop using procedural mechanisms to keep the Senate-passed immigration reform bill from reaching the House floor, where it could pass with both Democratic and Republican votes. The bill wouldn’t fully satisfy the yearning in many families south of the border for a better life for their children, but it would give them a clear legal path toward achieving that goal, and might serve to keep families together.
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