Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.

Righting a Wrong: Family Reunification and Immigration Reform

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

As debate around the immigration reform bill is expected to heat up on the Senate floor, a contested provision allowing for some non-criminal deportees to return to the United States remains intact. For how long, no one is quite sure. The controversial measure, outlined in Section 2101 of the current bill, would permit deported immigrants with children, parents, or spouses who are currently U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to petition for a waiver to return to the U.S. and apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status. While reprieves have been granted to undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. in the past—under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and President Obama’s DACA memorandum last July—never before has a Congressional or Executive effort to overhaul immigration policy contemplated the return of deportees.

The “right to return” provision survives even as the rate of deportations continues to soar. Since 2009, the Obama administration has removed 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants and is on track to surpass 2 million by the end of fiscal year 2013. According to recent federal data unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 205,000 undocumented immigrants with at least one U.S. citizen child were deported between July 2010 and September 2012, representing an average of 90,000 per year. The contentious deportee measure stems from acknowledgement on the part of the bill’s authors of the destructive effects that these enforcement policies have had on American families, particularly U.S. citizen children. A spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio, one of the bill’s most conservative drafters, noted that the Senator had “personally concluded that giving parents a chance to reunite with their children was the right thing to do.” The toll that family separation takes on the mental and physical health of children has only recently attracted serious attention, with studies suggesting links between parental deportation and depression, separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poor cardiovascular health.

Central to the compromise reached by the bill’s sponsors – known as the Gang of Eight – is the question of how to prioritize family reunification without shattering the bill’s prospects. The argument from the right has been that in promoting family-based immigration, the 1986 reform prompted the larger waves of immigration seen since then. In response to these concerns over “chain migration,” however exaggerated they may be, the proposed legislation calls for a gradual move away from the family-based immigration model, eliminating some 90,000 annual visas given to the siblings and married adult children of legal immigrants and granting up to 110,000 visas to immigrants skilled in science and math. Democrats have viewed this shift toward a more comprehensive “merit-based” system as a necessary compromise, but have built into the bill measures such as the “right to return” as well as an expedited path to citizenship for DREAMers (the children of unauthorized immigrants) and a clearing of family-based immigration backlogs – all of which vindicate the importance of the nuclear family. It is time for Senators from the right to follow the lead of Republican drafters and make some concessions of their own, including the Gang of Eight’s compromise to allow for the reunification of families torn apart by a decade of immigration enforcement policies run amok. Immigration reform must have as its foundation a concern for family unity and a respect for what families contribute to our society. It should also take into account the welfare of 4.5 million U.S. citizen children in mixed-status homes who will be better equipped to contribute to our society if they have the opportunity to grow up in the presence of their parents.

The Overlooked Dimension of U.S. Immigration Reform

By Eric Hershberg

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

The 2012 U.S. presidential elections brought national attention to the Latino vote and, with it, immigration reform.  Embarking on his second term, President Obama immediately labeled the matter a priority, and some but not all of the Republican leadership is eager to reach a deal.  Beyond electoral calculations, there are many good reasons for Washington to finally resolve the status of roughly 11 million people living in the United States without legal documentation.  The border with Mexico has become increasingly impermeable, stripping critics of reform of one of their principal talking points.  Virtually all credible studies demonstrate that immigrants contribute more to the tax base than they receive from public expenditures, and they are a crucial source of community revitalization in some of the nation’s depressed cities and towns.  Meanwhile, a generation of youth brought to the country as young children – the “Dreamers” – languishes without recognition of their de facto status as Americans.  There are also humanitarian issues: families and neighborhoods are torn apart by the more than 400,000 deportations in each of the past several years.

Immigration reform matters to Latin America as well.  With millions of Latin Americans residing in the United States, several of the region’s economies are highly dependent on a steady flow of remittances, which are destined to increase if undocumented workers come out of the shadows.  In 2012, Mexico and Central America received more than $35 billion from migrants in the U.S.  Particularly striking is the case of El Salvador, a U.S. ally.  Nearly a third of its population lives in the U.S., and remittances surpass all other sources of revenue – now 16 percent of GDP.  For several Central American governments the welfare of migrants working in the U.S. is not only a humanitarian concern: these citizens are a crucial foundation for economic viability – and thus nothing less than a national security priority.

Yet remarkably absent from the U.S. immigration debate are the implications of a comprehensive reform for the eroded credibility of the U.S. in Latin America.  Virtually alone among senior officials, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged soon before leaving her post that creating a pathway to citizenship “will be a huge benefit to us in the region, not just in Mexico, but further south.”  The point merits emphasis.  The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, the result of domestic policy shortcomings, has serious consequences for U.S. standing in the region – as serious as other policy failures such as Washington’s continued inability to normalize relations with Cuba, to stop illicit gun exports, or to stem the demand for illicit drugs that is fueling violence and corruption across the region.  If the new administration wishes to avoid a replay of the open rebellion by Latin American governments against U.S. policy that emerged at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, it would do well to show the region that it is willing and able to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

The U.S. Election: A sigh of relief, a moment of hope?

Photo by: Hanoian | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin American media see a glimmer of hope in President Obama’s reelection that was largely absent during the campaign.  The breadth and composition of the coalition that carried Obama to victory appears to have impressed commentators, and some believe that Obama might be freer of political constraints in a second term.  In Mexico, undergoing its own presidential transition, there is expectation that continuity in Washington will facilitate a smoother transition there.  The prospect that Obama will be willing, and perhaps more able, to press for additional stimulus measures to jumpstart the U.S. economy – with obvious benefit for interdependent Mexico – may also be a factor.  El Tiempo in Colombia noted that “with Obama, there won’t be surprises,” and that stability is welcome during the difficult peace talks.  The ALBA countries generally welcomed Obama’s reelection, and – probably reflecting a wider view – Cuban media proclaimed: “U.S. elections: the worst one did not win.”  Some media, such as Brazil’s O Globo, reminded readers that the U.S. House of Representatives remains under Republican control, and that the GOP “had been kidnapped” by the Tea Party.

A quick review of regional commentary reveals interest in the fact that Latino voters, more than 70 percent of whom opted for the President, were an important part of his coalition in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico.  Despite the Obama administration’s record number of deportations and its failure to introduce comprehensive immigration reform during its first term, there is little doubt that the President’s June 2012 decision to implement provisions of the Dream Act increased enthusiasm.  Challenger Mitt Romney’s tough talk on Cuba and Venezuela did not win over South Florida, suggesting that demographic change is undermining support there for hardline policies.  Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “Obama needs to recognize and pay that debt to the Latinos.”

No one so far has dared to expect a major shift in emphasis toward Latin America during Obama’s second term, but reelection gives the President another opportunity to make good on his vision for “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.”  Early analysis of the voting, particularly in Florida and in Latino communities, suggests that he will have the political space to live up to the expectations created by his soaring rhetoric during his first Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Not only can he explore reasonable approaches to longstanding issues such as Cuba, which will improve the U.S. image throughout the region; he can reengineer Washington’s relations with Central and South America in ways that reflect the region’s own evolution and ambitions – enhancing and facilitating them, rather than fearing or even resisting change.  If Latin America is ready to move into the future with a new, constructive interaction with the United States, now is the time to give it a try.

Mexico: Expecting More of the Same

This is the first of a series of entries examining how the U.S. presidential campaign is being viewed in different Latin American countries.

Photo: Zocalo, Mexico City | Luis Lobo Borobia (“Cromo”) | Flickr | Creative Commons

A survey of Mexican media indicates that, despite the considerable attention the U.S. presidential campaign is getting, few Mexicans expect the November election to result in significant shifts in bilateral relations.  Unlike in U.S. coverage of Mexico’s recent presidential contest, the Mexican press has not focused on bilateral drug cooperation.  Some commentators have stated general preferences.  “For the economy, demography, and proximity, a second term for Barack Obama would be good for Mexico,” wrote Enriqueta Cabrera in El Universal.  But most opinionmakers appear focused on particular issues.

There is a broad recognition in Mexico that the campaign is primarily about the U.S. economy, and the potential impact of continued stagnation has driven wide coverage.  The Mexican media are also tracking the candidates’ immigration policies.  President Obama’s executive order to halt deportation of young people who would be eligible for legal status under the long-stalled DREAM Act helped his image in the Mexican press.  The coverage of Republicans has been harsher, with El Universal saying that immigration has been “the taboo topic” for the GOP and that Governor Romney had “forgotten” about Hispanics.  The role of Latinos in the campaigns has drawn attention, mostly positively for the Democrats.

The Mexican media’s treatment of the campaign – and assumption that relations will not change much – reflects the fact that neither American candidate has brought new ideas to the table in one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships.  On drug policy, bloody continuity seems far likelier than change, regardless of who wins in November.  Although Romney has tipped his hat – as Obama has – to the need to reduce U.S. consumption of narcotics, his main message is “to help Mexico as we did Colombia, with intelligence and surveillance.”  The greater variable is on the Mexican side, where new President Enrique Peña Nieto’s promise to refocus the drug fight on citizen security – instead of cartel interdiction – has drawn criticism from some in the United States.  Allegations that the “old PRI,” tolerant of the drug trade, is back are not far behind and could poison the relationship.

The Consequences of Deferring “Deferred Action”

Photo by Larry Engel

The Obama administration’s recent announcement of a sweeping initiative designed to remove the shadow of deportation from the lives of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. is the latest twist in the dual saga of immigration policy reform and enforcement. According to government sources, including the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano, the carefully worded policy of “deferred action” is not an attempt on the part of the administration to sidestep a deadlocked Congress, an example of executive overreach, nor a strategic campaign maneuver during an election year in which the Hispanic vote could be decisive. It is simply the “right thing to do.”

The disparity between this morally grounded, high-level rhetoric and actual immigration law enforcement practices—which last year resulted in a record 400,000 deportations—has sent mixed signals about the current administration’s sincerity. It seems that the rising rate of deportations, touted last year as a “step in the right direction,” is beginning to be viewed within the administration as an unfortunate miss-step. Nonetheless, to many advocacy groups who lobbied in support of the DREAM Act and against blind enforcement of immigration laws, this Friday’s announcement by the Department of Homeland Security provoked a case of déjà vu. Only a year ago, in June 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton enthusiastically revived the policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” promising to scale back the removals of young students, military service members, and others. However, as of May 29 of this year, only 4,363 cases —a mere two percent of the 232,000 backlogged cases under review—had been administratively closed or dismissed.

Beyond questions of electoral politics and policy implementation, one thing is certain: for many undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-based families, deferred action has come too late. A recent report from DHS cited that during the first six months of 2011 alone, over 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were forcibly removed—a statistic that raises serious concerns about the health and social impacts of deportation on U.S. Latino communities. As the current administration seeks to hammer out a consensus regarding a long-term solution to the country’s broken immigration system, it is crucial that such a consensus be informed about the consequences of political miss-steps.