Dispatches from the Potomac#08 | “Humanitarian and Border Crisis” Facing the US

The US is facing a new crisis. Recently, there has been a drastic increase in the number of unaccompanied children attempting to enter the country illegally via the border with Mexico, creating a “Humanitarian and Border Crisis”. The Department of Homeland Security reports that the number of such children in FY 2014 (from October 2013 through the end of September this year) will reach 90,000—2.3 times more than the previous year.

This article was originally written in August for publication in the September 2014 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Moreover, the US government cannot immediately deport the majority of these children. About three-quarters are from Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. According to the "Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008", the US government is required to investigate whether these children are victims of human trafficking. The procedure is that if the children are recognized as victims, they can be granted the right to remain in the US; but, the immigration court system is not capable of reviewing 90,000 cases in a short time. At the current pace, tens of thousands of children will have to wait for a long time for a hearing. This creates an unavoidable situation in which these children live in the US until a verdict is reached.

Causes Lie in Central America, However...

The main reasons for the increase in illegal entry by children are poverty and rampant violence, particularly in three countries in Central America. In 2012, the incidence of murder in Honduras was 90 per 100,000 population, the worst in the world. The rates in El Salvador and Guatemala were only about half that of Honduras, but were still at fourth and fifth place in the ranking. Parents in these countries are driven by fear. Even knowing the risks involved in sending the children alone to the US, they feel their chances are better than keeping them at home. According to the assessment criteria of the US government, the safety in El Salvador and Guatemala is not that bad, but graphic reports about the organized crime in Central America and business of smuggling children have fueled the anxiety of parents there.

There are also widespread misconceptions among the parents who are sending their children, such as the belief that “If they go to America now, they will be granted citizenship”, and “They won’t be deported.” Although the Obama administration is pursuing a policy to open the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, this only applies to those who have been raised in the US after being brought to the US as young children by parents who entered illegally. The President has clearly stated that “Children who enter the US illegally after this will not be granted citizenship.” However, the governments in these three Central American countries lack the ability to convey accurate information, and the parents hear only the distorted stories spread by criminal organizations.

Furthermore, among parents from these three Central American countries who are currently residing in the US, there are many who are summoning the children they had left behind in an effort to take advantage of the current rules and regulations. According to the “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008,” children who have been detained for illegal entry, if their parents reside in the US, will be placed in the care of their parents until a verdict about their immigration status is reached. This allows them to live together for quite a long time. In fact, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. such as Maryland and Virginia there are many immigrants from El Salvador, and the number of undocumented children placed under the protection of their parents has reached nearly 4,500.

No Breakthrough in Sight, Causing Damage to the US and the Administration

The Obama administration has not found any solution to this “Humanitarian and Border Crisis.” The President asked Congress for an emergency budget to fund measures to speed up the process for the detained children, but no agreement was reached between the Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate before Congress adjourned for the summer break. In particular, conservative hardliners within the Republican party have become more vocal, not only seeking an amendment of the “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008” so that children from the three countries in Central America can be deported immediately, but also demanding the rescission of the decree defining the legalization for young illegal residents that was signed by the President in 2012. This kind of partisanship is unlikely to lead to any compromise.

What can be said is that it is difficult to maintain a stable system of immigration in the US, which is surrounded by countries with which there is an overwhelming gap in economic circumstances and safety. Republicans complain about the current administration’s relaxation of immigration restrictions, but the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than the previous Bush administration—over two million people. Liberal members of the Democratic Party and advocates for immigrants from Central America have even complained that President Obama is the “Deporter-in-Chief,” so it cannot be said that the Obama administration is lax about immigration. The increase in the number of countries in Central America with deteriorating safety causes the influx of people to the US to increase. It is necessary to determine what measures should be taken regarding the immigration system to ensure the stability of the US society, without being bound by ideology. Even so, this current humanitarian/border crisis was not avoided, and the continuing confusion with no sign of a breakthrough has led to a situation in which it will be difficult to achieve any progress on a comprehensive reform of the immigration system before the end of the year. One cannot help but think that this crisis will inflict significant damage to the US economy and society as well as to the Obama administration.