Humanitarian Crisis? Traveling Unaccompanied?: Reflections on Government Framing (Part 1)

The presence of immigrant children from primarily Central American countries at the U.S./Mexico border this summer has dramatically diminished for the past few weeks and government officials and those who work directly with them question if the sudden ebb will remain steady for the rest of the year.

However, what is certain is that while the flood of children seemed almost uncontrollable earlier this summer, their numbers were not as alarming as the omission of their voices from the mainstream discourse. Based on extensive contact with these children and their family members for nearly a year, this post challenges two of the frames that the government uses to characterize these children's lives as well as their influx.

How much of a "humanitarian" crisis is this?

The federal government characterizes the influx of children as a "humanitarian" crisis as 42,000 unaccompanied minors have avalanched into the United States within the span of a few months, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

With usually no money in hand, but rather a bible, a rosary, and phone numbers of their family members scribbled on wrinkled notebook paper, these children are running from the inescapable interpersonal and structural violence in their home countries. Some examples from the very lives of these children include fleeing from coerced labor imposed by gangs, such as having to transport drugs and guns from town to town at the threat of their families being killed. They're escaping from the physical violence of their grandmother for not waking up at 3 a.m., before heading to school at 7 a.m., to sort out used clothes for her daily sale at the outdoor market. Sending remittances back to dad will keep him from getting harangued by gangs in the fields to pay his daily "rent," so they keep hoping. Aspirations to finance their sibling's education pull them to this country, as their parents are locked out of economic opportunities in a nation that faces the same fate. Many of these brave children have raised themselves and their younger siblings alone as survivors of parental abandonment. Hence the term "crisis" keenly characterizes their lives from birth, not just the moment they show up at the border.

Yet while it's easy to vilify gang members, caregivers, or these children's countries and think of them as somehow deficient, it's more historically accurate to place these personal problems in context of a political and economic history of domination. Economic instability (and the interpersonal violence it engenders) in these countries is largely due to the pronounced privatization of world resources by industrialized countries, such as ours, as former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz continues to publicly point out. Forced liberalization, predatory loans, unilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA, and the European and American-controlled International Monetary Fund and World Bank play a significant role in displacing people from poorer to richer nations.

However, the term "human" and many of its derivatives used by government officials to characterize this influx can be tremendously misleading. When I think of the term human, I think of someone whose voice and experiences are validated, someone who shares a sense of belonging with those around them and whose existence is acknowledged as valuable, someone who counts on healthy food and potable water, and someone who has a right to their own body. Yet this term proves contradictory upon taking a closer look at the lives of these children, as the following reflections point out.

Reflection 1: Help for these children and criminalization of their parents perpetuates a "bootstrap" ideology that doesn't hold.

What's peculiar is that framing this influx as a "humanitarian" crisis can lead one to think that these poor brown children are being talked about as "human beings" while their parents and family members (who fled similar circumstance 10 to 15 years ago) receive no similar consideration whatsoever. These children's undocumented family members are legally a non-human existence -- "aliens" -- and are criminalized for wanting to provide for the very children now found at the border.

Conversations with these children's parents and family members in the U.S. reveal that their experiences in this country are not too dissimilar from the circumstances they fled from in their home countries, as almost insurmountable discrimination based on a lack of citizenship status, non-white skin, non-American educational credentials, and a "funny" accent keeps them relegated to poverty. And up until recently, in order for these parents and family members to reunite with their own children, the government asked them to live above the poverty line. These types of requirements erase the very real structural constraints that play out in undocumented immigrants' daily lives while supporting the proud American illusion that anyone can make it in the land of opportunity if they tried hard enough.

But why such different regard from the government between these children and their parents when poverty, just like wealth, knows no age, but is rather inherited? Poverty disproportionately marks the lives of people of color across the world, and as illuminated by the lives of these children and their family members, poverty, just like wealth, knows no 18th year threshold.