Want to solve the border crisis? Stop what’s causing it. Simply throwing money at programs to absorb illegal immigrants will not end the humanitarian crisis on our border. In fact, without tackling the root causes, more children will be brought by human traffickers to the U.S.
What are the causes? An uptick in violence in Central America is partly to blame, but first and foremost is the impression that America is not enforcing its immigration laws. President Obama’s repeated calls for giving illegal immigrants a quick path to citizenship sent a signal to Central Americans that an amnesty may be on the way. But more important were his executive actions.
When Congress failed to pass his “Dream Act” immigration law, he decided not to enforce the existing law. On Aug. 15, 2012, he created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allowed certain people who had arrived illegally, but as children, to work and be protected from immigration enforcement. He did this by executive action, intentionally bypassing Congress.
Word got out that the U.S. was relaxing its immigration laws. Although DACA technically applied only to illegal children who had continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, the message heard by people in Central America was that it applied to newcomers.
Another law signed by George W. Bush was also partly to blame, but only because it was applied to a situation for which it was not intended. The 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act set up special procedures for handling unaccompanied children arriving on America’s borders. It was intended to protect children suspected of being victims of sex trafficking — not to deal with a flood of tens of thousands of children such as we are now experiencing.
Thousands of unaccompanied children starting showing up on our southern border months ago. The administration knew it had a problem. And the administration had a choice on how to deal with it. The president could have asked to Congress to change the 2008 law to apply to the crisis. Or the administration could have used powers available to it under other immigration laws to ease the crisis.
Instead, it chose to process the children under the more relaxed rules of the 2008 law. Officials argued they had no choice because most of the children were from “noncontiguous nations” like Honduras and Guatemala and thus were not exempt like those from Mexico, as required by the 2008 law.
But the writers of that law never meant to provide a general exemption to all unaccompanied children entering the U.S. for any reason whatsoever and from anywhere in the world except Mexico and Canada. It was a specific law with a specific purpose: to protect victims of sex and human trafficking.
The best course of action would be to change the 2008 law as soon as possible. However, some immigration lawyers believe that Section 235 of the Immigration and Nationality Act already gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to remove “any and all aliens” who have not been legally “admitted or paroled in the U.S.” This option should be explored as well.
An increase in violence in Central America has certainly made matters worse. But even here, U.S. policies have contributed to the problem. Washington cut counternarcotics and military aid to these countries that could have been used to combat the gangs and drug cartels that are fueling the violence in the region.
The cutoff of aid to Honduras, all because the government there opposed a coup engineered by friends of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, was particularly damaging, because many of these children are coming from there.
Not everything can be blamed on U.S. policy, but the tragedy is that so much of what made this crisis worse is self-inflicted. If the 2008 law needs to be changed, then do it. But what is really needed is for the administration to start taking border security seriously.
- Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in The Washington Times