The vast influx of young Central American migrants that overwhelmed southern Texas this summer has receded, and so has the panic at the border. But the emergency has not gone away; it has just moved on, out of view.
The Obama administration was caught flat-footed when the surge began, and it responded with a surge of its own, rapidly setting up thousands of detention beds and putting deportations into overdrive. It moved the new arrivals to the front of the long, backlogged lines in the overwhelmed immigration courts, trying to send a forceful message to others in Central America considering the trip: Don’t try it.
The migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, came here to escape violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and may have credible claims for asylum. Thousands of them are now jammed into courtrooms and detention centers, and, for the most part, are starved for legal support. They have no right to government-paid lawyers, and Congress denied the administration’s request for funds for legal services. The Department of Health and Human Services has just come up with $9 million to pay for lawyers for about 2,600 unaccompanied minors. But that’s a fraction of those needing help.
Recently, local governments and nonprofit organizations having been cobbling together their own web of support. The New York City Council has joined with two philanthropic organizations, the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York Community Trust, to provide nearly $2 million for legal assistance for about 1,000 children. San Francisco has approved $2.1 million.
These are admirable gestures of community-level compassion, however makeshift and inadequate to the task. They are strikingly at odds with the refusal of the federal government to grant these desperate migrants the same consideration given to other groups of refugees. Even when President Obama and Homeland Security officials called the surge a “humanitarian crisis,” nobody — Congress least of all — seemed to believe it.
Deportations have since sent children back to the gang-and-drug maelstroms of cities like San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where fear drives families to send their children on treacherous journeys north. Advocates note that having a lawyer vastly increases the odds of a migrant’s remaining in the United States. But when migrants’ credible fears of returning are ignored, when lawyers working in detention centers lack access to their clients and basic needs like phones and computers, the result is justice delayed, derailed, denied.
The Obama administration is no doubt in a tough bind. The Border Patrol was put in an awkward spot when its agents had to supply diapers and food and other basic humanitarian care to throngs of children who willingly surrendered themselves along the Rio Grande. Anti-immigrant forces used the crisis to stir up a panic over border security. But the fear was misplaced, and the administration and Congress should have done better by these traumatized children. The United States is bound by law to give migrants who fear persecution careful consideration. Their well-being and survival should not depend solely on the kindness of strangers.