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The Desert Is No Place For Kids

U.S.-Mexican border boundary marker
Border crossing boundary marker located near San Diego, Calif.
Photo by Donna Burton, courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

There are many dangers along the U.S.-Mexican border, but crocodiles are not among them. We can thus be certain that the river of crocodile tears being shed over illegal migrant children is coming from someplace else.

That river has its source in a wellspring of thoughtlessness and hypocrisy.

Let’s start with the dangers of the desert. On Father’s Day this year, the temperature hit 93 degrees Fahrenheit in Imperial, California; 96 in Yuma, Arizona; 99 in Del Rio and an even 100 in Laredo, both in Texas. That was not especially hot for this region, although summer has not quite begun yet. By mid-July in Yuma, the average daily high is 107, and 120 is not out of the question.

Last year, authorities reported 412 deaths among migrants on either side of the border, even as the number of illegal crossings apparently fell (as judged by the number of apprehensions). Many of those people died agonizing deaths from dehydration or exposure, which trailed drowning in the Rio Grande as a cause of mortality. Seven of those dead were children.

Then there is the passage from Mexico, or across Mexico if the migrant comes from Central America. That country recorded its highest-ever murder count in 2017, with more than 29,000 dead. Drug battles and common crimes alike go unsolved, and in many parts of the country the police are more likely to be a problem than a solution. Migrants are essentially on their own to defend themselves.

If an American parent placed a child, accompanied or not, in the hands of a criminal gang to make such a dangerous trek, we would not think twice about seeing that parent charged with child endangerment. We would expect the child to be placed in state custody.

To the surprise of nobody who is old enough to remember the 2016 election, the Trump administration is trying to crack down on illegal border crossings. Part of that crackdown is the prosecution, rather than merely the deportation, of most adults who are apprehended after entering the United States illegally. Most first offenders are charged with a misdemeanor and, after being prosecuted, sent home. Such prosecutions required the ending of a “catch and release” policy in which those who entered the country illegally were freed, often to go underground with their families; instead, they are now held pending prosecution. We don’t incarcerate children along with their parents, so the children are placed in government custody until they can be released to relatives or sent home.

Obviously, those children are entitled to humane treatment, and so far not much concrete evidence has emerged to indicate that something other than that is happening. If it is, it should be fixed. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., fanned outrage in an interview with CNN where he claimed children were being held in “cages,” which the administration countered were “barriers” meant to separate different genders and age groups; subsequent tours of the facility by other lawmakers and reporters have created a fuller picture of a bare-bones facility, though not one (as Merkley claimed) hidden from scrutiny. But the real goal isn’t to warehouse children more comfortably. It is to keep them out of state custody in the first place.

A border wall might do that. Strangely enough, critics of the child-separation policy are almost uniformly opposed to the administration’s goal of building such a wall.

Encouraging migrants to show up at official border crossings legally would also work. After apprehension, many migrants request political asylum in the United States. Such requests can be made at any border station. Why don’t more people make such requests this way? Probably because many are bogus, last-ditch efforts to delay deportation. The people making such requests are often not qualified under our laws for such asylum. Additionally, non-Mexicans should, under international law, make that request in the first country they reach after fleeing their own – which typically would be Mexico, not the U.S.A.

Reforming our failed drug laws would greatly ease the pressures on Latin American societies by eliminating the profit motive that has given rise to the hemisphere’s most vicious criminal gangs. You would think we might be ready to try something new after a half-century of unsuccessfully waging a global “war on drugs.” But apparently we aren’t.

Reforming our immigration laws would also be an excellent idea. If we granted work permits, legal residency and – for upstanding new members of our society – a path to full citizenship, we would remove the incentives to make the wretched and life-threatening illegal crossing. The House of Representatives may vote on two separate immigration measures this week, though their legislative success is far from certain. Regardless, neither goes nearly far enough toward allowing the kind of open door to immigration that would greatly benefit our country, if we would just let it.

But we are a democracy, and I don’t get to make the laws by myself. Nor, for that matter, does a president. It is neither unreasonable nor racist for our fellow citizens to expect our existing laws regarding immigration to be respected and enforced.

Much of the reported misery and confusion may also be due to the lack of judges at the border, which has caused many cases to languish much longer than they should. It is also possible that, because of relatively rapid changes to enforcement rules, border agents are inconsistent in how they handle cases. There have been reports, too, that designated ports of entry have improperly denied asylum requests. All of these problems are fixable, and we should fix them, but they are separate from the underlying questions of whether children should be separated from their parents at all.

Many of those who bemoan the policy on handling children who cross the border with their parents illegally support the “sanctuary cities” movement, whose sole goal is to impede the enforcement of our laws. The unintended but unsurprising consequence of such behavior is to encourage more parents south of the border to risk making the journey north, sometimes with their children. The Wall Street Journal reported that, since October, more than 32,000 unaccompanied immigrant children have been taken into custody along the Mexican border, a 4 percent increase from the year prior.

Let’s have an honest discussion about what sort of immigration policy makes sense for a country with an aging, slow-growing population and a tight labor market. Let’s welcome people who want to come here to build a better life for their families, the way so many of our own family members did.

But let’s not pretend that the controversy over separating children from law-breaking parents who have already jeopardized those children’s safety is really about the welfare of these kids. If we really cared about them, we would do everything we can to keep them out of the desert this summer.

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