The Urgent Humanitarian Crisis Doesn't Begin or End at the Border

BROWNSVILLE, TX - JUNE 18:  Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on
BROWNSVILLE, TX - JUNE 18: Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on June 18, 2014, in Brownsville,Texas. Brownsville and Nogales, Ariz. have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images)

The moral panic regarding the children in detention along the border is not helping, its hurting. Over the past two weeks, media attention on the unaccompanied minors has swelled, with particular attention paid to the conditions of Border Patrol detention facilities where the children are being held. Photos have circulated of children in cramped quarters, sleeping on the floor under heat-reflective blankets. While there is no doubt that seeing children in such conditions is distressing, the public concern for the children's well-being is revealing itself to be deeply mixed with anxiety regarding the presence of Latino immigrants in the US.

The language is frightening: dramatic narratives of a "surge" or "flood" or "wave" of impoverished, sick, smelly and morally questionable youngsters and their families rushing across the border because they heard the US might be offering amnesty. For decades, dangerous water metaphors have been used to describe immigrants. Such language is powerful. It operates culturally to distance those being discussed, remove them from the sphere of the "human," and promote fear and anxiety in the mind of the reader. But while it is easy to cherry pick news articles and quotes from elected officials using racialized metaphors, there is a more subtle yet related trend in the way the unaccompanied minors are being discussed in the mainstream media that is equally concerning. Even well-intended articles can be destructive when they lead to short-sighted reactions. Too often, the way the crisis has been communicated in the media dwells on visually appreciable symptoms of suffering without questioning the underlying systems that expose some to suffering by design. Such a discourse invites short term and superficial "feel-good-about-ourselves" solutions that do nothing to address the underlying root causes that compel people to leave their homes and families and risk their lives migrating in the first place.

Root Causes

As was stated recently in the National Journal, "this is not a migration story" but rather a foreign policy failure. The children in detention in Arizona and Texas are primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, countries that suffer from political instability, violence and poverty. Although the reasons for these conditions are complex, the role of the US cannot be overlooked. US foreign policy in Central America over the past 50-60 years has often eroded democracy, weakened civil society and increased criminal impunity. As historian Greg Grandin described it, the US "turned Central America into one of the last killing fields of the Cold War." From supporting the United Fruit Company to ousting democratically-elected leaders to promoting CAFTA, the United States has secured its economic interests in the region through violence and imperialism.

Not only has US foreign policy proved detrimental, but recent domestic policies have exacerbated problems. In 1996, the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) prompted an accelerated deportation process, which led to many returning to their home countries with criminal connections that were developed through incarceration in the US. Gang violence flourished, and Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world. Furthermore, law enforcement and governmental agencies, partially funded by the US through programs like the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), have high levels of corruption and inefficiency.

It should come as no surprise then that thousands are fleeing Central American countries. In fact, the United Nations refugee agency initiated an empirical study of the unaccompanied minors which found that more than half of the children were forcibly displaced, "meaning that if the U.S. refused these children, it could be in breach of U.N. conventions." In other words, these unaccompanied child migrants should be considered refugees rather than immigrants. But so should their parents, who have been risking their lives crossing the border for the past decade. The humanitarian crisis is not new -- mothers have been searching for missing sons, wives for lost husbands, daughters for disappeared dads. People have been and will continue to die trying to cross the US-Mexico border until root causes are addressed.

Solutions Proposed, Solutions Overlooked

Two weeks ago, President Obama publicly addressed the increase in unaccompanied child migrants by allocating $1.4 billion for shelters and transportation and by designating the "surge" a federal emergency. While the conditions of the detention facilities where the children are being housed are shocking and deeply concerning, such an action does ultimately expand the militarization and criminalization processes of the US immigration system.

The Obama administration has also assured the public that migrants will be processed through immigration court hearings quickly and subsequently deported. While the urge to process migrants through detention facilities rapidly is understandable and appreciated, increasing the speed of trials will only lead to the failure of due process. Immigration attorneys will not have adequate time with their clients and many legitimate asylum claims will go unheard. This need for expedited trials could lead to an extension of Operation Streamline, a dehumanizing process that involves en masse hearings and fast-tracked prosecutions of immigrants.

While the response in terms of US foreign policy is unclear, to date, the focus appears to lie in an increased allocation of funds. At least $100 million has been promised to the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to aid in the reintegration of deported migrants and an additional $161.5 million has been allocated to CARSI. While these are positive steps, they are also short term solutions that have been seen before with little to no lasting impact.

If we are sincerely concerned about the well-being of the unaccompanied minors, we must be concerned about them before they arrive at our southern border. To increase security at the US and Mexican borders is to push the problem further away, and further into the hands of organized crime. Truly addressing the mass exodus from the south will ultimately have to be more painful for the US, as we benefit from the same structures that expose Mexicans and Central Americans to suffering. To get this right, we will have to rethink economic trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA, that have failed to deliver what they promised, especially to the working poor. We will have to reassess current US foreign policy in Latin America, and reflect on past involvement so that we can learn from our mistakes. We will have to reexamine our approach to the drug trade, and consider how US policies push billions of dollars into the hands of organized crime. Finally, we will have to reconsider our immigration policies, which at present, separate families and provide no clear, efficient and legal path into the US for workers from Mexico and Central America.

All of this will take time. In the meantime, the minors should be given asylum.

A Warning: What Happened in the 1990s

Today's fear-laden discourse about immigration, along with the short-term view of solutions is all too familiar. In the mid-1990s, punctuated fear surrounding a "sudden flood" of immigrants resulted in the militarized US-Mexico border we see today. The economy had dipped, and there was widespread concern that immigrants from Mexico were coming to steal American jobs (despite reliance upon and encouragement of migrant labor for decades). The language is familiar: "Suddenly a vast flood of illegal immigrants -- Mexicans driven to desperation by some unspeakable and unspecified social catastrophe -- surges across the Southwest border, inundating entire communities as it washes north into the American heartland," wrote Sam Dillon, a New York Times reporter in 1995.

The panic led to drastic measures. Silvestre Reyes, Border Patrol chief of the El Paso Sector, determined federal efforts to be unsatisfactory and in 1993, established Operation Blockade -- a state-led militarized operation in Texas to secure the border. This act jumpstarted the Clinton administration's 1994 Border Patrol Strategic Plan, designed with assistance from the Center for Low Intensity Conflict. The plan drastically increased border security, and deployed remote desert geographies as weapons designed to teach migrants a lesson -- try if you like, but you might die in the process.

The results were deadly. Migrants began dying in California, and then died in Arizona by the hundreds. In the years before the 1994 Strategic Plan was put into practice, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson investigated an average of 12 cases of migrant fatalities per year. After the plan was implemented, the yearly average of migrant fatalities increased more than tenfold, to over 160. The strategy, while effective in causing deaths, was not successful in preventing people from attempting to cross.

Today, once again, we see increased calls for border security, deportation and detention. Once again, we hear refugees and immigrants being described as a horde, mass or flood, rather than human beings. And, as of June 18th of this year, the state government in Texas has once again chosen to take border enforcement into its own hands through the enactment of an order that authorizes the fortification of law enforcement in border counties. If the present echoes the past, these actions could foreshadow further militarization of the border, and more death and suffering.

Over the last 13 years, there have been 2,202 recorded migrant deaths in southern Arizona alone. The remains of another 70 have been found in the state since January, and a second year of excavations in Brooks County, Texas, is unearthing the haphazardly buried remains of even more. As father Alejandro Solalinde says in the film Who Is Dayani Cristal?, "migrants shine a light on the things that need to change." Migrants have been trying to tell the world for over a decade that something in the system is broken. They cannot survive at home, so they choose to risk their lives in the desert. Migrants the world over are messengers of a failed economic system. When will we listen?