SAN DIEGO — Americans are trying to get a handle on the border kids — and what President Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation" along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Americans want to know why, according to U.S. immigration officials, more than 47,000 young people — most of them from Central America — have streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border in the last eight months. They want to know who or what is to blame for the surge, and thus should be held accountable. They want to know how federal immigration agents, who are overwhelmed despite being warned by Texas officials two years ago about an uptick in unaccompanied minors crossing the border from countries other than Mexico, are going to respond. And finally, they want to know — if most of these young newcomers are allowed to stay — what impact they are going to have on our communities, our politics and our national fabric.
According to U.S. immigration officials, almost three-fourths of these minors are coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. About 70 percent of them have come through Texas' Rio Grande Valley, which is a favorite doorway for smugglers because there is easy access to interstate highways and not much fencing compared to what you find in California, Arizona and West Texas.
And since most of these young people hail from countries battered by gang violence after the dissolving of a truce, it's more accurate to call them refugees than immigrants.
According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, the United States isn't alone. Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Belize are experiencing surges in unaccompanied minors. Those who headed all the way to the United States — often by stowing away on top of dangerous trains that go from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the U.S.-Mexico border — intended to reunite with family members here.
Some have been able to do that and now find themselves as far away as New York or Washington state. The rest are being held in government-run detention facilities or on military bases.
Judging from what I've heard in the last couple of weeks, Americans might be able to better understand this story if not for five things that keep getting in the way.
* Even though these kids could be deserving of refugee status, we're projecting onto this story our feelings about immigrants as if these young people were coming here for jobs. For conservatives, that means assuming that every person who comes from Latin America arrives with an outstretched palm for handouts, freebies and giveaways. For liberals, it means using the sad plight of these young people to argue that we need immigration reform because the system is broken.
* We're mixing terms and confusing "amnesty" (the granting of legal status en masse to millions of illegal immigrants) with "protective status" (which merely allows the undocumented to remain in the United States without being deported). While the legislative branch has to grant the former, the executive branch has the power to provide the latter. So it's not truthful or fair for conservatives to claim that young people are being lured here because President Obama is offering "amnesty."
* We're susceptible to believing that the Obama administration is offering some kind of special accommodation in this case because most of us are not aware that there is a long-standing policy of treating unaccompanied minors who cross the border differently from adults, which could include allowing them to remain in the United States in the care of relatives while they await a hearing before an immigration judge for which most of them will never show up.
* We think this is happening because of either a push or a pull, when it's probably both. The kids could have been pushed out by government instability and gang violence in Central America. They could also have been, according to a border security specialist I spoke to with knowledge of what many kids are telling federal officials, pulled to the United States by a rumor spread by television networks in their home countries that Congress had approved a special "permiso" (permission to stay) for children. The desperate will believe anything.
* Finally, we look for one-size-fits-all answers. There aren't any. There are thousands of kids coming from a handful of countries. Each story is unique. Human nature is complicated, and so is this crisis.
Americans are no closer to understanding what drives the story of the border kids. To get there, we'll need to keep our prejudices in check and our minds open.