As Congress heads into recess, we hope they use their break to improve their understanding of the issues surrounding the influx of child refugees at the border. To listen to the solutions proposed by Congress and the executive branch, you'd think this was a situation that no one has encountered before. It is a complex topic ill-suited to talking points, but there are plenty of publications filled with valuable insights. As teachers and experts in child migration, we have some suggested summer reading for our leaders to help them identify solutions.
For Sens. John Cornyn and John McCain, we recommend Jacqueline Bhabha's "Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age." Both senators introduced legislation that would expedite the removal of refugee children. If they can't find the time to read the entire book, we will dog-ear Chapter Four, where Bhabha discusses the realities of child trafficking. She cites studies and her own experience to show how expedited removal perpetuates the cycle of human trafficking, leading to the trafficking, or rather re-trafficking, of more than half of the children returned. The safe repatriation provisions included in the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) are a viable intervention for this danger. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' report "Children on the Run" shows that more than a third of children expeditiously removed to Mexico are, in fact, ending up in the hands of organized crime. In effect, U.S. immigration enforcement is running a recruitment program for gangs along the border. Full implementation of the TVPRA provisions could reverse this trend.
President Barack Obama might check out a copy of Lauren Heidbrink's "Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State," which explores the consequences of not recognizing the unaccompanied child's autonomy. Leaders in both parties have embraced the notion that Central American parents are actively sending their children to the U.S. In response to this perception, the administration is spending taxpayer money on infomercials to shame Central American parents out of sending their children north. But this public relations campaign is not always reaching the best audience. One key disconnect is a failure to realize the advanced autonomy of children in developing countries. At age 13, a child is most likely already contributing to the family's income. At 14 or 15, they may have started a family and be worried about supporting it.
To help Rep. Michael McCaul overcome his fear of the 17-year-olds crossing the border, we recommend Oscar Martinez's "The Beast" and John Gibler's "To Die in Mexico." Both authors lay bare the threats to migrants: rape, forced conscription into organized crime and kidnappings that often end in murder. Unaccompanied children carry the scars of this violence on top of any traumas associated with their original motivations. This is a uniquely vulnerable population. People rarely take such risks, repeatedly, without justification. For too many children, this justification is desperation.
And to the rest of Congress, we suggest reading the full "Children on the Run" report. The report breaks out children's motivations by country, a useful source of information for tailoring specific interventions to the region. At the very least, lawmakers should be aware of the push-and-pull forces on child migrants. Guatemalan children are likely to be motivated by abject poverty. In El Salvador, gangs are so entrenched that they recruit inside schools. A primary motivation for kids from Honduras is to reunite with parents already here. That is, kids are going to their parents, not being sent by them. If lawmakers want parents to dissuade their children from joining them in the U.S., they will have to prove to these children that the trip is more dangerous than staying put. With the conditions in Central America, it's not an obvious choice.
Investments in educational, child protection and anti-trafficking systems in the region would help parents and children envision a viable future at home. Without a holistic view toward addressing unaccompanied children's situation and varied motivations, our leaders risk subjecting them to repeat and escalating danger. Perhaps they could use the summer to read up on the facts.