Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas.
On June 2nd Barack Obama issued a memorandum announcing the creation of an interagency task force in response to what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation” on America’s southern border--a sudden influx in unaccompanied alien children. Law enforcement officials have apprehended almost 52,000 such children since October of last year. Some 38,000 of them, or about two-thirds, have entered the country in the Rio Grande Valley.
A few days later, the story got a boost when Breitbart Texas published a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of people, most of them children, who are being held in federal facilities while awaiting legal proceedings—or as Breitbart’s Brandon Darby put it, reasonably enough, a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of children “warehoused in crowded U.S. cells.” The images hit a nerve, and over the past two weeks the unaccompanied alien children have gained more attention as state and federal officials have been arguing over the causes of the crisis and the appropriate response.
The influx is, by any standard, a complex and rapidly evolving situation. It’s also an emotionally charged and politically contentious one. Thousands of extremely vulnerable children are involved. But so too are many more controversial people: a president whose policies may have spurred this crisis; the saber-rattling Republicans who have been fulminating about our porous border for years; the transnational drug-trafficking organizations that are helping these immigrants cross the border, and are surely aware of the disruption that the influx has caused; the constellation of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working in the Valley; and, of course, the parents of the children arriving recently, who are surely vulnerable in their own ways but who have either endangered the children in question—or accompanied them as regular, adult aliens.
All of that adds up to a pretty bewildering picture. But after spending the weekend reporting in the Valley, I came away with several conclusions. First of all, the influx of unaccompanied alien children makes a lot more sense if you think about it as part of a surge in illegal immigration from Central America. That surge began a couple of years ago and is due (at least in part) to widespread reports in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that the United States is not going to enforce immigration law against minors—that’s why so many of the immigrants in question are children. The more lurid and ominous reports about the migrants themselves are exaggerated. The influx is real, though, and markedly different from the illegal immigration that the United States has experienced in recent decades.