Obama’s proposal to aid migrant children would help very few of them


More than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border since October, a 92 percent increase from the prior year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Tochiro Gallegos/Bloomberg News)

Republicans are talking about speeding up the deportation process for migrant children, but the president appears to be thinking about letting a few more in.

The Obama administration is mulling allowing hundreds of Honduran children and adolescents into the United States by granting them refugee status, reports the New York Times. The plan would allow the U.S. to grant minors in the poverty and crime-stricken Central American country direct access to the U.S.—that is, a means of entering and staying in the country without traversing the dangerous path through Mexico and crossing the border illegally—on humanitarian grounds.

Many questions have already been raised in the wake of the news, including how expediting the process by which some child immigrants enter the country will help stem the flow of migration into the U.S. And rightfully so, according to Carlos Vargas-Ramos, an adjunct assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

"What needs to be addressed is the reason these children are migrating," Vargas-Ramos said in an interview. "This would only be a band-aid for a bigger problem that needs to be addressed holistically."

Much of Central America is marred by gang violence and drug trafficking. Some 70,000 gang members are believed to roam the streets of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador alone, according to estimates by the United Nations. And Honduras, which would serve as the pilot country as part of the proposal, is arguably the most troubling example of them all.

Most countries in Latin America have seen their murder rates fall over the past decade, but in Honduras they have more than doubled in the past six years, according to UN estimates. There are roughly 20 murders a day in the country


The path through Mexico is hardly any safer. Some 50,000 migrants are believed to have died en route to the U.S. border since 2007.  And yet hundreds of thousands of Central Americans (pdf) choose to take the risk each year. More than 50,000 migrant children alone have been apprehended at the border this year—almost 50 percent more than last year, and more than 250 percent more than in 2011.

That tells you something about the relative risks inherent in staying and going. Central Americans would rather risk their lives by migrating north through Mexico than suffer through the violence at home. "The U.S. needs to make a more concerted effort to deal with the violence in these countries," Vargas-Ramos said. "It is in its best interest. The country is dealing with national repercussions of its international policies."

Honduras' president agrees. "If you look at the root of the problem, you’ll realize that your country has enormous responsibility for this," Juan Orlando Hernandez told my colleagues Ed O'Keefe and Marlon Correa earlier today. "[Drug trafficking to the United States] generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. And we’re on the route," he said.

The current proposal, which assumes that some 5,000 children will apply in Honduras, would cost nearly $50 million over the course of two years. And Guatemala and El Salvador might see a similar program implemented if the pilot is deemed successful. But less than 2,000 children would be selected from those that apply in Honduras. That's a mere fraction of the more than 16,000 that have been apprehended at the U.S. border this year (and the thousands more that are likely still in transit).

There's also the potential for confusion over the definition of the word refugee. The U.S. launched similar screening programs in Vietnam in the 1970s and in Haiti in the 1990s. But those were set up in the aftermath of a war and devastating hurricane, respectively. "There's serious worry that if the proposal is enacted it will stretch the current meaning of the word refugee," Vargas-Ramos said.

Legally speaking, refugees are those who flee a country for fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, politics, opinion, or association with a specific social group.

In this case, migrant children might be recognized as a social group facing heightened persecution by virtue of their age—especially young men recruited by the gangs. There's some precedent for it. The increasing number of children from Central America who have arrived in the U.S. have come for the sole purpose of seeking asylum, which, under American law, is only afforded to those who are also considered refugees.

"They have claimed persecution in their home country by gangs," Mike Allison, an associate professor of political science at The University of Scranton, said in an interview. "There have been a few successes, in which they have been granted reprieve on those ground, but it's a very small percentage. Treating the children as refuges is not settled law, but discussions of asylum have been going on for years."

The debate, however, might very well outlive the proposal, which the administration has said is one of many it is considering. According to administration officials, as long as the total number of refuges entering the U.S. does not increase, Obama could enact the proposal through executive action. If it does, it will give the appearance of progress on the immigration front, but serve as little more than a piecemeal solution. For the moment, that might be as good as it gets. "Congress isn't really conducive to far ranging overhauls on immigration right now," Vargas-Ramos said.

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, immigration and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.
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