When the long-simmering child migrant crisis bubbled over onto front pages in early June, Republicans predictably pounced on President Obama. The reason, they claimed, for the enormous surge in the number of child migrants apprehended along the United States’ southwestern border—an increase of 160 percent in less than a year—was the administration’s lax border and immigration enforcement policies. Never mind that Obama has deported more immigrants than any previous U.S. president in history or that, under his administration, border and immigration enforcement spending has reached an all-time high of $17 billion per year (which, rather than curtailing illegal immigration, has only made it more deadly). Republicans and much of the media also blamed a 2008 anti-trafficking law (signed by George W. Bush) mandating full immigration hearings—as opposed to immediate removal—for unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada. (Though detained migrant children often have no access to legal representation, the law at least provides them with limited due process rights and the opportunity to apply for asylum.)
In response to its Republican critics, the Obama administration has embraced some of their arguments, hinting that it may support changes to the 2008 law and asking Congress to approve an emergency $3.7 billion spending bill aimed at further strengthening border security and immigration enforcement. The proposed bill also calls for a public relations campaign to let would-be illegal immigrants know that they face prompt deportation if apprehended. But there’s little evidence to suggest that migrants aren’t already well aware of the risks they are taking—not just of deportation but also of theft, rape, mutilation, extortion, and murder on the way to the U.S. border. A recent survey of detained migrant children by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees indicates that very few—only 9 out of 404—believed that they would be treated well in the United States or benefit from permissive immigration policies.
A number of Democrats have aggressively rejected Republicans’ claims and emphasized the “push factors” or “root causes” driving child migration. The three countries that are the source of the majority of the unaccompanied child migrants—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are all poor and have high rates of unemployment. They are also experiencing appalling levels of violence, higher than any other region of the world, outside of war zones. Gangs and drug cartels are responsible for much of this violence, but state security forces have also played a role, according to human rights groups. The confluence of these two factors—economic turmoil and violence—appears to be decisive in driving increasingly desperate citizens of these nations to the United States. Tellingly, the adjacent country of Nicaragua—though the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere—has relatively low levels of violence and few of its inhabitants are leaving the country. On the contrary, large numbers of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans are now also migrating to Nicaragua, as well as Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize.
The administration has meekly acknowledged this reality and promised “to help address the underlying security and economic issues that cause migration”—although this “help” is barely perceptible in Obama’s spending proposal. Only a small number of U.S. politicians have cast a critical eye on their country’s policy toward these three tiny nations—often referred to as the “Northern Triangle”—and dared suggest that it might bear some responsibility for the current crisis. In a July 10 statement, the Progressive Caucus (which includes sixty-seven of the more left-leaning members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders in the Senate), asserted that free trade agreements with the United States have “led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration.” The statement cited reports by human rights groups that the U.S. government is “bolstering corrupt police and military forces that are violating human rights and contributing to the growth of violence in the Northern Triangle.”