The troublesome facts of the southern border crisis

Robert W. Glover, University of Maine

The southern border of the United States is facing a crisis of startling magnitude; of this, there is no doubt. In this sense, Bob Casimiro is right to call on Maine’s Congressional delegation to do more on the issue in his July 14th Bangor Daily News opinion piece. Yet his piece is also indicative of the misunderstanding and manipulation of facts that have thus far stymied any meaningful attempts at immigration reform in this country.

First, a bit on what is happening (the interested reader might want to consult the very useful primer here). This year, US Customs and Border Protection estimates that they are likely to deal with over 70,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the US Border. This is a massive increase from previous years, with the boost stemming from increased numbers of migrants from Central America, most notably El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

So what is driving the increased numbers? It’s largely the instability, violence, and corruption that have beset those latter countries. Roughly half of the migrants interviewed by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) at the southern border reported fleeing violence or retaliation at the hands of gangs, cartels, or corrupt state and police officials.

Why can’t we simply send them back? It’s against the law. Non-Mexican child migrants are protected under provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. These measures were designed to confront human trafficking and also ensure that minors who came to this country fleeing a credible threat of violence don’t end up being sent back to face retribution or death.

In short, this is largely a humanitarian crisis and those coming here ought to be treated as refugees.

Under current law, those unaccompanied children coming here are supposed to have their cases reviewed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, before transfer to a family member or foster care. The problem is that we currently lack the resources to deal with this influx of migrants. Republicans have effectively blocked the attempt at comprehensive immigration reform that would have massively expanded resources going to the southern border, and have lined up to do the same on President Obama’s emergency request for $3.7 billion to deal with the present crisis.

This is a complex issue, with an array of competing political actors and difficult ethical questions about our responsibility to children trapped in a cauldron of criminal violence and political instability. Unfortunately, Bob Casimiro’s piece bulldozes over this nuance, utilizing rhetoric and cherry-picked statistics that enflame rather than enlighten.

For instance, he states that “33,959 of 141,525 migrants taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the first six months of the fiscal year — 24 percent, almost one in four — were convicted criminals.”

This statistic leads us to believe that we are beset with an influx of foreign criminals. The reality is that immigration enforcement under Obama has been retooled to apprehend and deport those with prior criminal convictions and violent histories. This percentage is evidence that these steps are working. Under Obama, deportations of violent offenders have increased by 70 percent (and, incidentally, Obama has deported more migrants than any president in American history).

To further suggest that we are being overrun by criminals, Casamiro cites anecdotal evidence from a personal phone call with Tim Foley of the group Arizona Border Recon. This is one of many groups that have taken to the southern US Border over the past ten years. Nick R. Martin reports that while “…the numbers of so-called ‘border watch’ groups are dwindling, some that remain have shown a surprising penchant for violence.”

Consider this report, then, from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“In March 2011, for example, Border Patrol agents encountered a heavily armed man in the desert south of Tucson. The man, identified as Tim Foley, told the agents he had military experience as a sniper and that he planned to conduct “mercenary type operations” along the border. He also allegedly told them he had deployed an improvised explosive device in the desert.”

At the very least, I think we might question the veracity of Casimiro’s source.

In addition, Casimiro states that “…green cards went to 202 of the world’s 205 nations; that is 98.5 percent of the all the countries in the world.” Again, this is a function of our current policy, which works on the basis of a “per-country limit.” In and of itself, this statistic is meaningless as it’s not evidence of any aggregate number on migration, just how we allocate our visas. Changes to modernize the visa system to better align with economic and humanitarian needs were a key part of the comprehensive immigration bill that House Republicans effectively rendered dead on arrival.

The situation on our Southern border is indeed a crisis, and one that merits swift and decisive Congressional action. However, to deem it an “invasion” and color the conversation with dubious or manipulative claims about the issue will prevent Americans from grasping the complexity of the political and ethical questions involved.

We need to authorize emergency funds to deal with the current humanitarian crisis and seek leadership in Congress that will pass meaningful comprehensive immigration reform. If not, we can expect crisis to become the “new normal.”

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