Obama Says There’s a Humanitarian Crisis at the Border, So Why Isn’t He Treating It Like One?

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July 7 2014 4:50 PM

Obama’s Border Bet

The president says there’s a “humanitarian crisis” at the border—so why is he treating it as a simple immigration problem?

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That might sound like bombast, but the limited available evidence supports it. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have been increasingly ravaged by gang violence and are among the most dangerous countries in the world. Honduras, which accounted for the highest number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border in the past three years, now has the highest murder rate in the world. And, as Vox recently pointed out, the murder rates in all three countries were so high in 2012 that someone living in one of them was, statistically speaking, more likely to be murdered than a civilian living in Iraq at the height of the war was to be killed.

Children and teens face their own particular set of dangers given the prevalence and power of gangs back home. “My grandmother wanted me to leave,” a 17-year-old migrant from Honduras recently recounted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “She told me: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you—or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’ ” Another explained her reason for fleeing: “In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them, and throw them in plastic bags.”

Even assuming Obama’s proposed change would convince families against sending their kids to the border, there’s no guarantee that the message would ever reach Central America, where many households don’t have television, let alone the Internet.

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Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that those children who do make the trip, and the families who send them, are on some fundamental level accurately grasping our asylum law. The U.S. asylum process is complicated, but children can earn a number of special visas if they are believed to be victims of human trafficking or other crimes. According to a recent UNHCR estimate, more than one-half of the children arriving from Central America’s Northern Triangle fled their home countries because they “suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”

Put another way, these children don’t meet the technical definition of refugees under U.S. law because they are already on American soil when they’re applying for asylum, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a legal claim to refuge. “The White House’s proposal represents a lack of recognition that these kids are fleeing serious harm,” says Megan McKenna, the director of advocacy and communications for Kids In Need of Defense, a nonprofit that arranges pro bono representation. “It’s unfairly limiting to look at this just as an immigration issue, and that’s what the president is doing.”

Regardless of whether Obama’s plan works as intended, advocates fear kids in legitimate danger would be deprived of the protection they have a right to under U.S. law. “We’re not saying all of the children should stay,” says McKenna, ”just that our laws say they should have meaningful representation and access to the system. [Obama’s proposal] would end that.”

The proposal faces an uncertain fate in Congress, where some Democrats will be wary of taking a vote designed to speed the deportation of children, and where Republicans currently threatening to sue Obama for executive overreach will likely have little interest in giving the president the additional power he’s asking for. But even if lawmakers ultimately approve his proposal, there’s plenty to suggest that the outcome might not be any better than the current unsustainable status quo.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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