A flood of unaccompanied children is swamping America's southern border with Mexico in alarming numbers, creating a humanitarian crisis that has no precedent in that region. The U.S. Border Patrol now expects to apprehend as many as 70,000 unaccompanied minors at the border this year -- most of them from nations south of Mexico such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This would be nearly twice the total from last year, and three times that of 2012. The U.S. immigration system is simply not equipped to handle this influx of children, and is thus being overwhelmed. It remains to be seen whether the political system can handle it.
Why and how did this happen? Latin America is rife with talk on the streets that one can obtain legal status or citizenship for one's children — and enable parents to join them here later — by risking their lives in a long and dangerous trek to the U.S. border. Saving these children requires making clear to everybody that such hopes will not be fulfilled.
This has no connection with immigration reform, which is coming eventually in one form or another. But that political reality in unrelated to the crime of parents who send their children — many of them younger than 12 years old — on a dangerous thousand-plus mile trek that subjects them to multiple horrors, including physical and sexual abuse and possibly death.
This disgraceful practice would right stop now if President Obama showed some leadership and moved beyond his usual habit of using immigration as a political cudgel against Republicans. The humanitarian crisis was created by vague rumors and ending it requires a clear and unmistakable message from the U.S. government. The United States must immediately and with great fanfare declare its intention to impose sanctions on any parent or guardian whose child makes the border crossing alone.
Beginning today, when unaccompanied children are found crossing the border, their parents should be identified and their names placed on a publicly available list of people who will be specifically excluded from all benefits of any future immigration reform. They should also be permanently barred from entering the U.S. even if they claim refugee status. And if the parents currently reside in the United States, they should be identified, tracked down and deported immediately. Doing this now will quickly stop the flow of children, letting authorities to focus on those already here.
Americans are a compassionate people who welcome legal immigrants and care deeply about children. U.S. policy should reflect that compassion. The children should not be punished or sanctioned in any way. They should be welcomed back to the United States later if they qualify under future reform proposals. The only regret is that for now, they may be have to be returned to parents who care so little about them as to endanger their lives in this way. But incentives matter, and no American wants the federal government to encourage child abuse, even if unintentionally.