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Crisis at the border: We must ensure that humanitarian protections work and American values are upheld

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
This humanitarian crisis is the result of the breakdown of the rule of law in the sending countries.

While the impact of the refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is being felt most dramatically in Texas, Arizona, and other southwestern states, we can expect it to affect us all. On one day this week, The Advocates for Human Rights — based in Minnesota and about as far from the Mexican border as one can get — interviewed two unaccompanied children, ages 9 and 14, and a mother who, with two children under 5, fled their home countries and endured horrendous journeys to get to the border and to safety.

As Congress considers steps to weaken protections for children seeking safety at U.S. borders, Americans need to consider why record numbers of children are fleeing their homes and how we should respond.

Fleeing an undeclared regional war

Michele Garnett-McKenzie

First, Central American children and families are leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to escape violence and what is essentially an undeclared regional war. This forced internal and international displacement reflects on-the-ground humanitarian crises in these countries, and the dangers are not new. Since 2008, there has been a steady of stream of people fleeing.

In fact, the number of asylum applications made by people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in countries other than the United States has soared a whopping 712 percent, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Even Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, saw a 238 percent increase last year in asylum seekers from its neighbors, according to UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Leslie Velez. Efforts to aid countries in the region, while far short of the money needed, may be a good start at digging at the root causes of the problems driving children and families from their homes.

Second, U.S. immigration policy has not caused this crisis. Rather, this humanitarian crisis is the result of the breakdown of the rule of law in the sending countries. It is not an “immigration problem,” and it will not fixed by deploying more enforcement resources to apprehend illegal border crossers or by weakening international protection systems.

The United States already spends approximately $18 billion on immigration enforcement, including nearly $2 billion on detention operations. While any issue of migration always raises concerns about impact on U.S. immigration policy, focusing on the border issue without recognizing the humanitarian obligations associated with this regional refugee crisis fails to address the problem. The current push to undermine the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008’s basic screening mechanisms for children is just the latest misguided — and deeply troubling — effort to blame a regional refugee crisis on U.S. immigration policies.

A correct White House declaration

Third, the Obama administration’s declaration of the crisis as a serious humanitarian situation is correct and appropriate. But it must not be combined with efforts to deter people from seeking safety. The refugee protection system emerged following the horrific failure of the international community to protect people fleeing the Holocaust. International refugee law, to which the United States has long been committed, was designed precisely to ensure that people fleeing persecution would not be turned back at the border before being given the chance to explain why they need protection. Efforts to deter people from seeking protection — whether through warnings not to bother coming because deportation is inevitable or through the use of detention as a deterrent to asylum seekers — are wrong.

Fourth, the United States must commit resources to ensure that everyone with protection claims meets due process worthy of our justice system. It is critical to ensure that our country’s humanitarian protection system works, is fair, and upholds American values.

Claims for protection based on fear of persecution, torture, or human trafficking may be complicated — and nearly impossible for an unrepresented 5-year-old to present on his or her own — but they are both legally and morally justified. Resources must be dedicated to ensure that children and families who have fled for their lives have the opportunity for their protection claims to be articulated and considered. That means providing increased numbers of immigration judges and asylum officers to adjudicate claims and attorneys to represent them. Without proper hearings and proper, effective adjudication, we will be returning children and families to serious harm and placing them back in the hands of persecutors and traffickers.

Michele Garnett-McKenzie is the director of Research, Education, & Advocacy for the Advocates for Human Rights. In addition to have represented asylum seekers, McKenzie serves on the national leadership team of the Immigration Advocates Network and previously chaired the national steering committee of the Detention Watch Network and the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 09:57 am.

    It’s been said, correctly, that America cannot afford to be the worlds protector. It’s just as true that we cannot afford to be the worlds safety net.

    Our immigration policy won’t cure the underlying issues that drive the third world to our borders, that’s true. But that’s not its purpose. We need to secure our borders first. It won’t ever be airtight, but it needn’t be a sieve either. Our immigration policy should be fair, within the boundaries of what is best for America as it’s first and foremost priority . We should encourage the migration of intelligent, skilled people while maintaining a spot for people who have without these things that have none-the-less shown some initiative; speaking English would be a good place to start.

    It’s all well and good to spew platitudes, but the fact is we cannot support the multitudes.

    • Submitted by Dan Bosch on 07/11/2014 - 12:42 pm.

      “but it needn’t be a sieve either”

      Until there is tougher enforcement for employers, the border will fortuitously remain porous.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/13/2014 - 08:41 am.

        I agree 100% Dan. People who knowingly employ people in the country illegally are committing crimes; they should be prosecuted.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/11/2014 - 01:11 pm.


      Seems to me that any man, woman or child who’s left home and risked life and limb to enter this country illegally has shown far more initiative than most “intelligent, skilled people” favored by our immigration laws.

      Your comments reflect an (unwitting?) preference for the privileged of other nations and for our continued harvesting of the best and brightest of those nations, often those needed in their home countries to bring the change needed to lessen the demands on our own borders.

      I suggest you learn something about conditions in the Central American nations from which these people come before trying to determine what the criteria should be for their admission.

      Working to cure the underlying conditions in these countries should be part of our larger immigration policies. Instead, our policies have fostered the conditions which cause their people to flee.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 10:46 pm.

        My comments reflect a thoughtful preference for what is best for America, because I’m an American. Of course I encourage harvesting the best and brightest from anywhere we can get them. With all due respect, your scolding reflects a naivete I reject out of hand.

        I happen to have traveled widely in Mexico and greater South America for work James, and I speak Spanish fairly fluently. Mexico, El Salvidor, Chile, Guatemala…been there. I’ve heard what these folks expect to gain from sneaking in to America from their own mouths….what’s best for America has never come up in those conversations.

        It’s not our job to run Latin America. It’s a mess, but it’s not going to change until the people who live there decide they’ve had enough.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 07/11/2014 - 01:39 pm.

      I guess that

      “”Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
      I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” thing is kinda lost on what passes for you flag wavin’ patriots these days, huh? By the way, speaking English will never be a prerequisite to living here, nor should it be. Most Europeans speak multiple languages and I myself speak Spanish and have a working knowledge of Tagalog. Everyone knows that the demographic in this country is changing and those who refuse to change with it will be left behind. We sent our children to immersion school and now in Jr. High, they’re both fluent in Spanish and nearly so in Mandarin. But you go right ahead and pine away for the good old days that are only prevalent in your revisionist history of America.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/12/2014 - 09:11 am.

        Speaking English is, in fact, a prerequisite to citizenship Jason.

        If we continue to elect feckless leaders who view our borders as recruiting grounds for political allies, there may come a day when our primary language is Spanish, or more likely, Mandarin, but for the time present it’s English. Speaking the primary language of the country you intend to live in is nothing but common sense

      • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/14/2014 - 08:31 pm.

        How many?

        How many of these children do you plan on taking into your home? Practice what you preach.

  2. Submitted by Amy Hendrickson on 07/12/2014 - 10:28 am.

    Not political, just a question …

    Hello Ms. Garnett-McKenzie:

    I was wondering if there is anyway that people in the US can take-in or help the kids who are currently stranded at the southern US border? Is there any possible way for charitable groups or individual families to sponsor a child or teen to help them stay in the US in a safe place or possible home?

    Thank you.

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