Americans have grown accustomed to watching grim refugee crises unfold in distant nations. There is now one metastasizing on their southern border.
The number of undocumented, unaccompanied children caught by U.S. border agents is soaring. In 2011, there were about 4,000. This year, there will be about 60,000. In the past few weeks, a surge in apprehensions has overwhelmed holding facilities. Monday, President Barack Obama ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the federal response to an "urgent humanitarian situation."
The crisis is regional, and has multiple causes. A United Nations study of 404 children apprehended after October 2011 found the majority had fled violence -- usually related to criminal gangs or drug traffickers, but also of the domestic variety -- in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. Faced with predatory gangs, and lacking protection from the law, families send their children on dangerous journeys north. Often the goal is to reunite the child with a parent or other family member already in the U.S. Yet the financial and physical risks are enormous, with dangers ranging from extortion by smugglers to rape and death. More girls and children younger than 13 are now making the trip.
Those are difficult issues to address from the United States. The difficulties are compounded by the vagaries of undocumented immigration: Has the prospect of immigration reform in Congress increased incentives to migrate? Is sending children to the border unaccompanied merely the latest way to game the system and gain entry?
By treaty, unaccompanied minors from Mexico -- 18,754 of them in 2013 -- are returned to Mexico, generally within hours of their apprehension. The U.S. has no similar arrangements with the noncontiguous nations of Central America; as a result, children from those nations face both more opportunity and less certainty when they are caught attempting to cross the border. Federal law requires the border patrol to transfer minors -- known as unaccompanied alien children -- to the Department of Health and Human Services within days of their apprehension. From there, after an average stay of 30 to 45 days, more than 85 percent are ultimately released to the custody of family members in the U.S.
According to a 2012 estimate, based on a much smaller flow of children, perhaps 40 percent are eligible for legal relief from deportation. Some are eligible for asylum, or for special visas for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by parents or guardians; there are special visas for victims of severe forms of trafficking or criminal violence, or adjustments of immigration status if they have a legal resident or citizen family member.
There is no satisfactory way to deal with the sudden appearance of thousands of children at the border. To address the root causes -- poverty, lawlessness and violence in Central America -- will take many years and depends, in any case, on enhanced capabilities of governments and law enforcement agencies far beyond U.S. jurisdiction. The Central American Regional Security Initiative, the main venue for combating dissolution in the region, will need bolstering against the destabilizing forces of drugs and gangs. The initiative gets a relatively paltry $130 million in annual U.S. funding.
Meantime, the crisis continues, with border patrol agents complaining of "baby-sitting" and two military facilities, in Texas and California, now assigned to handle some of the overflow. The Obama administration said that it would require more than $2 billion to deal with unaccompanied children next year.
There is no use pretending that an easy solution is within reach. Traveling 1,000 miles to reach the U.S. border under terrifying, life-threatening conditions is an act of desperation. When the voyager is a child, it's also an indictment. This system isn't working.