The “Border Children:” Dueling Memes, Numbers, and the LawPosted: August 1, 2014
In recent weeks the US public, media, and politicians have become aware of the crisis created by the large number of unaccompanied children arriving at US border posts from Central America seeking to reside in the US. The facts about this situation are widely available. The children have come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They traverse Mexico and enter the US at border crossings in Texas, Arizona, and California. The numbers are enormous: data provided by the Pew Research Center indicate that in fiscal year 2012, over 24,000 such children were apprehended. Over 47,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the border between October, 2013, and May, 2014. According to the Pew Center, US officials predict that 90,000 unaccompanied children will arrive at the border in 2014.
These numbers are not in dispute. What is in dispute is how we should understand the phenomenon and how we should respond to it. In this regard we are confronted with two conflicting memes, one promoted by conservative opponents of expanding the rights of unauthorized immigrants in the US, the other by liberals who support what is variously known as “immigrant rights,” “immigration reform,” and “a path to citizenship.”
The conservatives emphasize “border security.” Their responses have consisted of a good deal of political theater – protests at border crossings, calls for increased militarization of the US-Mexican border, and claims that this crisis is President Obama’s “Katrina.” Texas Governor Rick Perry has dispatched 1000 Texas National Guard troops to the border.
However, the carryings-on of the conservatives can be easily dismissed. The border is no more or less secure than it has been throughout the current administration with its record number of apprehensions and deportations. The Obama administration has done nothing to encourage the flight of unaccompanied children from Central America. Indeed, it is a the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) signed by President George W. Bush that requires that these children, whose journeys began beyond the countries immediately bordering the US, must be interviewed and evaluated in order to determine their eligibility for asylum or deportation. The National Guard troops have no role to play in the processing of persons apprehended at the border and they will not have the authority to apprehend illegal entrants. Their deployment is simply an expensive stunt initiated by a would-be presidential candidate. But the most extreme conservative voices have focused on the supposed threat posed by the children themselves. They have likened the children to an invading army and implied that they are likely to have criminal records.
The liberal interpretation has focused on the plight of the children and the circumstances that they are fleeing. They have decried Congressional and media critics of the administration’s efforts to comply with the TVPRA as bigots who oppose any opening of our borders to unauthorized immigrants, and as dogmatic ideologues whose opposition to President Obama has stripped them of any capacity for compassion for children who are fleeing life-threatening violence. They characterize protesters who show up at border posts as bullies who gather at ICE processing centers to “scream at eight year olds.”
So, do we have an invasion of teenage gangbangers or a flood of hapless eight-year-olds? The answer matters. We need only look at the available data for a partial answer. The US government has not been forthcoming with statistics about the children. Video and photographs have – appropriately – not shown the children in enough detail for the viewer to identify their ages (and often even their gender). The Pew Center statistics were obtained through a Freedom of Information request submitted to US authorities. What they indicate is that the “border children” are increasingly younger. Data for last year and this one confirm that the majority of these children are teens (91% in fiscal 2013 and 84% in 2014, so far). However, the number of children 12 years of age and younger has increased from 9% to 16% in the same period of time. These data also indicate that the percentage of girls is increasing faster than the percentage of boys. While the percent of boys increased by 8% from 2013 to 2014 (so far), the number of girls increased by 77 percent. Among teenagers, the rate of increase in girls is even greater, 24% in 2014 as opposed to 17% in 2013, representing a 62% increase, while the number of boys increased by only 2 percent. Nonetheless, boys still comprise the vast majority of unaccompanied immigrant children of all ages.
What we can conclude from the available data is that both memes are inaccurate representations of the facts. The numbers are staggering and tax our capacity to absorb the children and respond to them in a humane way. But they are not an indication that our border is insecure. The very fact that the children are turning themselves in to border authorities indicates something other than an invasion. And the law that governs their handling by US authorities was written by Congress and can be repealed or rewritten by Congress.
But the average “border child” is not an eight year old. The majority continue to be in the 13-19 year old boys. Are these boys fleeing the culture of gang violence in Central America or expanding it into the US? We should trust that answers will emerge if the proper authorities are allowed to carry out the law that applies to these children. What we can be sure of is that in this political year, the “border children” will continue to be pawns in political games.