In the past seven months, over 47,000 unaccompanied children have been caught crossing the southwest border of the United States. This number is a 92 percent increase over the same period of time in 2013; before 2011, the number of child migrants into the U.S. averaged between 6,000 and 8,000. Now, officials project that as many as 60,000 children will cross the border by the end of the year, in a surge that is being called a "hemispheric migration."
In light of this deluge, the Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.4 billion in extra funding to provide food, housing and transportation for these children, and asked the Department of Defense to provide assistance as well. Additionally, President Obama has appointed Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to lead the government's response. All in all, White House estimates show that the projected costs of caring for and resettling these child migrants could reach $2.28 billion next year, over double what the Obama administration asked for in its 2015 budget.
These recent events have spawned much debate over illegal immigration, children's rights, and the nature of what constitutes a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Some argue that the United States shouldn't spend so much money on caring for these child migrants, or are worried some of the migrants have been engaged in criminal activities like kidnapping, drug smuggling, and extortion. However, it seems as though this influx of children into the U.S. is less about criminal activity, reunification or even escaping poverty, and more about the very real security threats these migrants face if they remain in their home countries. About 90 percent of those who were cared for by the Office of Refugee Resettlement last year were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries where organized crime, drug trafficking, and gang violence are rampant. These factors, combined with the pull of potentially receiving mercy after crossing the U.S. border, have prompted many of these children to choose the United States as their final destination. A few months ago the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a report highlighting the plight of these child migrants. Entitled "Children on the Run," the report draws on interviews from hundreds of children fleeing the abuse, violence, crime and insecurity they encounter on the streets and within their own homes:
"My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: 'If you don't join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.'" -- Kevin, Honduras, age 17.
With this in mind, it seems as though the Obama administration is very aware of the humanitarian impact that insecurity has had on these child migrants, and is trying to provide a means to help these children receive the necessary asylum and care that they need. However, it is important to place this particular surge in migration within the context of other ongoing migrant crises, and think of the long-term consequences for these humanitarian crises as well. Whether in Syria and Turkey, Myanmar and Thailand, or Guatemala and the United States, as these "hemispheric migrations" increase around the world and continue to forge new patterns of displacement, what steps can we take to not only provide these children with the care they need, but also to adapt to these major global demographic and cultural transformations?
If the Obama administration wants to assuage this migrant crisis, it should invest in strengthening and providing these children, and American children, with educational and cultural literacy programs. The U.S. cannot eliminate the violence, crime and instability that exist in these countries. It cannot eliminate this particular migration crisis and inflow of children by providing them with temporary and short-term housing and care, and most importantly, the U.S. will most likely never be able to break the cycle of illegal migration. So, the question remains: Once those children receive asylum or move into the next phase of their journey, what will happen next? Thus, rather than approach the problem through that narrower lens, the U.S. should focus on how it can help these children assimilate and integrate through education, and how it can prepare its own children to effectively deal with these migrations and the subsequent metamorphosis of American culture that will certainly follow. Full integration into U.S. society generally takes more than one generation, and progress is already uneven for certain groups of migrants. As a result, we need to teach these children how to swim and keep their heads above the water, so that they - along with the rest of the U.S. -- don't flounder helplessly in a sea of cultural and demographic disconnect.
Ultimately, the solution to these hemispheric migrations does not lie in temporary housing and short-term care. If these children are going to continue to leave their homes, it is within our best interests to try as much as we can to ease them into our society and provide them with the long-term educational and cultural adjustment programs that they need. We need to invest in ensuring their futures, so that our country's own future isn't at stake. That is the real nature of this humanitarian crisis.