Republicans use child refugees to block immigration reform

The arrival in South Texas alone of over 50,000 child refugees without immigration papers since October has been seized on by the right-wing media and the Republican Party to block immigration reform. The question now is how will the Obama administration and the immigrants’ rights movement respond.

Earlier, it was reported that the surge in undocumented border crossing by minor children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador was on course to reach 90,000 by the end of this year. Independent reports as well as those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that the children are fleeing from a sharply deteriorating situation of deepening poverty combined with extreme violence.

These conditions are generated by unequal trade relations between these already poor Central American states and their wealthy, industrialized trading partners, mainly the United States, by activities of drug trafficking cartels but also by the U.S. financed “war on drugs”.  The vast majority of the children come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. UNHCR officials who have interviewed the children say that as many as 58 percent of them could have grounds, under international law, for protection as refugees.

When the media broke the story, Republican politicians and right wing commentators immediately jumped on it to see how they could use it to hit two targets:  The Obama administration and the movement for immigrant rights.

Against the Obama  administration, they made the accusation that the government’s “excessive leniency” in dealing with undocumented immigrants has created rumors that young people who cross the borders without papers will get a free pass to live in the United States.  They were referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which the Obama administration initiated in 2012, which allows some people brought without papers as minor children to avoid deportation. Although DACA has indeed helped out some half a million young “Dreamers”, the current group of border crossers would not qualify for it.  In fact, the current administration has deported immigrants at a rate exceeding any other one in recent history. 

What has been happening on the political scene explains to some extent why the right wing has been so eager to seize on the child migrant issue. Although the Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year and the movement has heavily lobbied individual Republican members of the House of Representatives, there has been no progress. The defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican Primary on June 10 by a tea partier, David Brat, followed by Cantor’s announcement of his resignation and his replacement by House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, is seen by some as a discouraging blow to any Republican who might support immigration reform.

President Obama promised the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that if the Republicans in the House did not move on immigration reform before the 4th of July recess, he would take executive action to expand the categories of people now covered by DACA.   He asked the Secretary of Homeland Security to start a review of the way deportations are being carried out.  Subsequently, Obama asked the Secretary to delay this process until the end of the summer, to give the House leadership some more time.          

Immigrant rights activists are thinking in terms of expanding DACA to cover at least the parents of dreamers, undocumented family members of U.S. citizens, and other specific categories.  Meanwhile, another movement has started for deported persons whose families, which include U.S. citizens, have been threatened with death or kidnapping in Mexico to be allowed to return to the United States. While the situation in Central America is especially dire, violence against deported people and their families in Mexico is also rising, because criminals think that ransom for kidnapped people can be extorted from their relatives working in the United States. U.S. authorities have reacted positively in some cases, including that of Elvira Arellano who had spent a year in sanctuary in a Chicago church before being deported to Mexico in 2007.  Arellano’s high profile work with Central American Refugees in Mexico had made her family a target for kidnappers, and she was allowed to return, as have several others.            

The Obama administration sent Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala to talk to the presidents of the three countries most affected. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who owes his 2013 election to U.S. support, decided it was more important to attend the World Cup games in Brazil, but the other two presidents met with Biden. Biden confined himself to exhorting Central American countries not to let their citizens take the child migrant route, as being “too dangerous.” But the danger at home is what causes them to flee.

Last week President Obama announced that new resources will be dedicated to deporting the undocumented children. To deport minor children fleeing mortal danger back to the location of that danger raises the possibility of violation of international law, however.

Meanwhile, the children are being housed in substandard conditions.

Photo: Detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell. Eric Gay/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.