SAN DIEGO — Americans are trying to get a handle on the border kids – and what President Barack Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Americans want to know why, according to U.S. immigration officials, more than 47,000 young people – most of them from Central America – have streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border in the past eight months. They want to know who or what is to blame for the surge, and thus should be held accountable. They want to know how federal immigration agents, who are overwhelmed despite being warned by Texas officials two years ago about an uptick in unaccompanied minors crossing the border from countries other than Mexico, are going to respond. Finally, they want to know – if most of these young newcomers are allowed to stay – what impact they are going to have on our communities, our politics and our national fabric.
According to U.S. immigration officials, almost three-fourths of these minors are coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. About 70 percent of them have come through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, which is a favorite doorway for smugglers because there is easy access to interstate highways and not much fencing compared to what you find in California, Arizona and West Texas.
Since most of these young people hail from countries battered by gang violence after the dissolving of a truce, it’s more accurate to call them refugees than immigrants.
According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, the U.S. isn’t alone. Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Belize are experiencing surges in unaccompanied minors. Those who headed all the way to the United States – often by stowing away on top of dangerous trains that go from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the U.S.-Mexico border – intended to reunite with family members here.
Some have been able to do that and now find themselves as far away as New York or Washington state. The rest are being held in government-run detention facilities or on military bases.
Judging from what I’ve heard in the past couple of weeks, Americans might be able to better understand this story if not for five things that keep getting in the way.
Americans are no closer to understanding what drives the story of the border kids. To get there, we’ll need to keep our prejudices in check and our minds open.
Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.