SAN DIEGO — As we sort through the tale of the estimated 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have crossed into the United States since October 2013, what is capturing our attention seems to be lagging far behind what is actually happening on the ground.
My sources who are familiar with border issues tell me that the media and the American people have no idea about the depth of the crisis.
How can we? We’re still arguing, at town halls and on talk radio, about who is to blame.
Conservatives are stuck on the template that all these kids traveled north because President Barack Obama essentially invited them by offering deferred action to undocumented young people two years ago. Under this theory, word travels slow to Central America.
As is usually the case on the issue of immigration, the right wing has gotten it wrong. Obama has never been soft on immigrants and, as we speak, he’s going out of his way to be extra hard.
This week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that many of the children “will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned.” You can bet on it, given that the folks saying the kids are going to be returned are the same people who are moving to deny them due process – access to an attorney, asylum hearings, right to appeal – by “fast-tracking” mass deportations.
Some liberals are reaching all the way back to the 1980s to blame the crisis on one of their favorite foils: Ronald Reagan. If Reagan hadn’t been so eager to meddle in Central America, they insist, these people wouldn’t be coming. It’s as if the modern horrors of violent street gangs that terrorize the youth population of Central America didn’t exist, and the past 30 years never happened.
Yet, others on the left would like to advance a conflicting narrative. This argument deflects the criticism away from Obama and onto George W. Bush, who in 2008 signed anti-human trafficking legislation that gives legal protections to unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada and lets them stay with relatives in the United States while they await a court date. Liberals need to choose a story line and stick with it.
Both sides should stop playing politics with this tale of human suffering, stop the blame game, and try to catch up to this fast-moving story.
It’s no longer about kids crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, my sources warn me. In this drama, this was merely the first act. The new concern of Border Patrol agents, federal law enforcement officers and border security analysts is that, now that we’ve advertised to the world that there is chaos on the U.S.-Mexico border, lots of really bad things could happen. The worry is that the deterrent factor that used to keep many people from trying to breach the border barriers – namely, the fear that they’d be apprehended, arrested, deported or jailed – has disappeared.
One problem is the perception of an open door. When the kids were allowed to come across, either because of existing policy toward unaccompanied minors or because the sheer numbers overwhelmed the existing border security apparatus, other types of would-be border crossers took that as a green light to try to enter the country as well. This may have started as a humanitarian crisis, but my sources tell me that all manner of humanity is now treating the border as a free-for-all.
More recent waves of immigrants include adults coming from Mexico for jobs in the United States, and – shockingly – some of the same teenage gang members that the first wave of refugee kids was fleeing. The gangsters are the people who Obama should be planning to deport. He needs to lay off the victims and focus on the villains.
In the long term, the bigger worry is the economic immigrants who are slipping through. What are they going to do when they arrive in Phoenix or Charlotte or Milwaukee and don’t find jobs? For more than 150 years, the economic ecosystem of the U.S.-Mexico border has regulated the northern flow of immigrants. Individuals with an itch to brave the journey calculate risk and reward. They come when there is work, and they stay home when there isn’t.
Now, a different story is unfolding – one that is not likely to have a happy ending, either for the immigrants or for the country receiving them. That’s what Americans should be worried about.
Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.