Tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children are streaming across our border with Mexico to escape horrors at home and finding new troubles here. These may be far less heinous than what they fled, but many have endured something akin to torture on the journey, will mostly have to return home anyway and meanwhile have a president of the United States to thank for their predicament.
Though something new, at least in this magnitude, the situation adds up to cruelty of a kind seen all over the immigration map, often put in place not by nativists, as anyone short of mindless on these issues is often called, but by people who are supposedly compassionate while failing the test.
Most of these children, unaccompanied by parents, are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and are desperately poor. They were sometimes abused at home. They were further terrorized by drug crime gone manic. A Reuters interview with a teenage girl tells what it can be like. Though now with her mother in Virginia, she walked great distances in getting here, went hungry, was raped by a migrant smuggler and initially worked in unpaid servitude after arriving. She thought coming here was legal.
On reaching America, many of the children quickly find otherwise. They end up in the custody of the Border Patrol and are then handed over to representatives of the Health and Human Services Department. They may get stuck in the equivalent of large cages, can go for days without a shower and may have to sleep on plastic cots. Some say the food they’re eating is making them sick.
The government, while spending hundreds of millions trying to cope with this ever-growing crowd, is doing no such thing. One Border Patrol official complained that the agency was so overwhelmed that it was having a hard time also dealing with other duties such as drug smuggling and gun runners. As with the interviewed girl, the children may eventually be taken to a parent or other relative in the United States, but will still face deportation proceedings hard to win.
It was President Barack Obama who issued the invitation for them to go through all of this. During the 2012 presidential election campaign and without benefit of Congress, he announced he would stop deportations of illegal immigrants who came here as children. The policy, which was sure to win still more Hispanic votes as it eased lots of worries, did not apply to children arriving after 2007, but it is scarcely rare that imperfect understandings get widespread.
In this case, even a White House official has said the current, unmanageable influx appears partly attributable to false stories that foreign children showing up alone would not be shooed away. In 2011, before the campaign promise, the number of illegally crossing children who were apprehended was something like 6,000. It is already 47,000 this year and the total next year is expected to be 140,000.
The deplorable plight of the children should be obvious to all, but the helplessness of many other immigrants is often made to seem opportunity at last. For the uneducated and unskilled, it is seldom anything of the sort.
They can’t get more than low-wage jobs, cannot navigate the culture and are often assimilated into an underclass culture where the norms are single-parent homes, gang membership and dropping out of school. Prior to the 2008 recession, these immigrants and their descendants were the major cause of American increases in poverty, even though educated, skilled, entrepreneurial immigrants fare well and are an enormous boon to the economy.
What that suggests at the least is that reform should aim at bringing in far more of those who can contribute and far fewer of those more likely to find hardship than rescue. We meanwhile need to employ workable ways to prevent grotesquely exploited and frequently dangerous illegal entry as prelude to any amnesty agreement. To skip these basics would be heartless.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.