Children at the Border: Old Problem, New Outrage, Few Solutions

“They set out with little or no money. Thousands, shelter workers say, make their way through Mexico clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains. Since the 1990s, Mexico and the United States have tried to thwart them. To evade Mexican police and immigration authorities, the children jump on and off the moving train cars. Sometimes they fall, and the wheels tear them apart.”–Sonia Nazario, “Enrique’s Journey,” September 29, 2002

It has now been 12 years since Sonia Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for “Enrique’s Journey,” a series of articles featuring a 17-year-old boy who set out from Honduras to find his mother in the United States. Enrique’s story became a bestselling book in 2007. Since then, Nazario has been telling anyone who would listen that America was on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis.

In 2002, Nazario estimated that as many as 7,000-10,000 young immigrants were coming every year from Central America to the United States, most of them on the tops of trains that traversed the length of Mexico. These children often came in search of their parents, but others came to escape drugs, gangs, and extreme poverty.

And the journey described by Nazario, who undertook it herself, was harrowing.

Many children were killed. Some were brutalized and raped. Many were forced into prostitution. They were at the mercy of the Mexican countryside, corrupt local officials, drug lords, and each other. And nearly all of them were eventually caught and turned back. Enrique, the subject of Nazario’s study, was sent back to Honduras 7 times before finally succeeding on his eighth try.

This was the situation in 2002.

Since then, there has been a linear progression of child immigrants to the United States, with current estimates that as many as 70,000 children will make the journey and be caught this year alone. As Nazario has predicted for the last 12 years, we have a humanitarian crisis on our border.

Sadly, for the vast majority of Americans, this is just now becoming a problem, which, in American political discourse, usually means that we are just starting to notice it. And since it is a recent problem, it must have a recent cause — which means, of course, that it must somehow be Obama’s fault.

According to the narrative now being constructed on the airwaves, the problem started when Obama announced that we would no longer deport children of immigrants who have lived all of their lives in the United States. Because of his pathological hatred of America, Obama has left the borders completely unprotected, so these kids just waltz across the Rio Grande to claim their welfare benefits and free health care.

The only thing we can do (as Sara Palin announced on Tuesday) is impeach the president.

This, of course, is a politically useful narrative designed to rouse a political base. But it is also a partisan fantasy. We have had a dysfunctional immigration system for years, largely because the need of our agricultural sector to import labor is fundamentally at odds with the need of politicians to appeal to the nativist sentiments of their constituents.

The businesses that own most politicians need more immigration, but the constituents who technically have to vote for them don’t want it. So we have to pretend that we are tough on immigration while doing everything behind the scenes to encourage it.

This ends up sending a lot of false signals to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of them children, who have little value to the industries that have a vested interest in making sure that immigration happens. They have increasingly become the victims of our dysfunctional and duplicitous immigration policies.

The problem of unaccompanied child immigration has been building for decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Trying to actually solve the current problem by appealing to a narrative like, “Tyrant Obama has failed to protect our borders and must be impeached,” is like trying to cure cancer by building a TARDIS. All it does is demonstrate that we are watching entirely too much TV and have a complicated relationship with reality.