Earlier this week, I commented on the emerging left-wing split regarding the unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the Southwestern border, a political issue that could reshuffle the 2016 Democratic primaries. But Iowa and New Hampshire are still a long way away, and the more than 50,000 children at our doorstep—a number which may reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year—present a humanitarian crisis right now.
Experts on migration and Central America tend to coalesce around a handful of root causes behind this recent surge in arrivals. They distinguish between “push” factors, which drive migrants out of their home countries, and “pull” factors, which attract them to the United States. And as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Eric Olson, just back from a trip through Central America, told a Senate committee this week, “The ‘push factors’ are real and overwhelming.”
According to Olson, there are three main factors pushing migrants to make the dangerous journey. The first is widespread violence: Heavily-armed gangs control huge swaths of territory, and the murder rates of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala rank first, third, and fourth in the world, respectively. The second factor is widespread poverty, with attendant problems in health and education. And the third factor is the growing desperation of people who have watched relatives go north, hoping they would soon be able to join them. As conditions have worsened in the home countries, and as prospects for immigration reform have waned, false rumors have begun to spread that “the U.S. will treat children with leniency and allow them to reunite with parents.” Olson notes:
[The] pitch, not subject to truth in advertising standards, is that “now” is the time to go. Unfortunately, many people bought into that notion in a context where desperation and fear for one’s children trump the risks of heading north on a treacherous and uncertain journey.
Diana Villiers Negroponte of the Brookings Institution also notes the family connection: “It is estimated that 2.5 million Central Americans live in the United States, 60 percent of which are either undocumented or live with Temporary Protective Status (TPS) which denies them the right to petition for family reunification,” she writes. To see their children again, families resort to raising thousands of dollars to pay human traffickers, usually aligned with large criminal organizations, to bring their children to the United States.
Negroponte recommends a blend of short-term and long-term steps. Right now, the United States must process the huge flow of cases while sending a “strong disincentive message to the adults who both send and receive these children.” And in the long term, living standards in Central America must rise, so that people become convinced that “the risks of the journey are not worth the gains in the United States.” Olson concurs, especially on the latter point: An effective solution, he argues, should involve “targeted workforce development programs to the two million young people [in the region] who don’t work and don’t study.”
At present, these are merely suggestions, since Congress has yet to act on President Obama’s proposals for addressing the crisis. And even that limited plan is hitting a roadblock: Sen. Ted Cruz recently announced that he won’t consider any funding to deal with the crisis until the White House agrees to end its 2012 directive protecting DREAMers. And just as this issue was starting to create real political headaches for Democrats, a Cruz spokeswoman declared to Politico that deporting DREAMers in exchange for funding any assistance to the migrant children is Cruz’s “top priority.”