The child refugee crisis at the Mexico-U.S. border

Henry Srebrnik
Published on August 4, 2014

First off, let’s get one thing straight: in the debate over immigration policy in the United States, people toss around phrases such as “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants.”


You’re not an immigrant unless you’ve legally entered a country. The Latin Americans crossing the Mexican-American border are, depending on the case, either economic migrants or refugees.

Also, the immigration discussion in the U.S. revolves around the issue of national identity. Few Americans, including right-wing Republicans, are opposed to people arriving from Asia, the Caribbean, or Europe, no matter their ethnicity or colour.

The conversation concerns Mexican and Central American Hispanics, who, the critics claim, are in effect pushing the Latin American cultural border further into the U.S., especially in states that were once part of the Spanish Empire and later, within an independent Mexico.

The noted Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington raised these concerns in his 2004 book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity.”

He contended that the mass immigration of Latin Americans and the proximity of Mexico make this migration different from all those that came before it:

“Would America be the America it is today if in the 17th and 18th centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.”

In fact, all or parts of Arizona, California, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming were captured from Mexico during the 19th century American-Mexican War. In 1848, the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which called for a defeated Mexico to give up about half of its territory.

And the border has continued to be a sore point between the two countries. It marks the boundary between two cultures, as well as between the world’s most powerful and developed country and much poorer ones to its south.

The border issue has taken on a new urgency in recent months, as more than 57,000 children have crossed into the U.S. since last October. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries with severe issues of poverty and lawlessness.

Some politicians lay the blame on the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 law that passed the U.S. Congress nearly unanimously and was signed by President George W. Bush.

It gave new protections to children who were not from neighboring Canada or Mexico, stipulating that their asylum requests be fully adjudicated if they were picked up for being in the country illegally. It requires border agents to take them into custody and within 72 hours turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services until a hearing can be held.

Administration officials say smugglers have exploited that statute and the long judicial processes that resulted from it, persuading Central American parents to risk sending their children on a dangerous journey to the United States in hopes that they would be able to stay permanently.

President Barack Obama has called the surge an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and recently sent a request to Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with these new migrants. Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, want to amend the 2008 law in order to allow quicker deportations of the arrivals.

Obama met with presidents Salvador Sanchez Cerén of El Salvador, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on July 25. He urged them to exercise what he called their “shared responsibility” to help stem the flow of migrant children toward the border, but the Central American leaders said America shares some of the blame for the crisis.

Hernandez suggested that the demand for illegal drugs in America is in part responsible for the violence that is causing the migrants to flee their homes in Central America. The drug cartels now have a great deal of control over much of northern Central America.

In many areas, drug traffickers operate with impunity. Honduras, for example, has the world’s highest homicide rate, at 83.5 murders per 100,000 people, as compared to one murder per 100,000 for Canada.

And when children become the targets of gang threats, there is often no better option available to their families than to send them north. So in a sense America is both the cause and the victim of this crisis.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.