Refugee children at the border.

Post date: Jul 16, 2014 6:44:54 PM

If you have been watching the news at all over the past couple of weeks you will have heard about the dramatic increase in the numbers of children and families fleeing the violence and poverty of Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Some press reports estimate that 50-60 thousand children have turned themselves in to authorities at the southern US border seeking a way to stay here.

This is an upsetting circumstance to be sure -- but coming to the US border and applying for political asylum (refugee status) is really the only practical answer for the children and families who feel they are in danger in their home countries. Southwestern communities are rightfully concerned that -- if these children and families are allowed to remain in the USA -- they will bear the economic burden of housing, educating, and supporting these children until they get on their feet. The US government cannot allow that to happen; but that doesn't mean that all the children and families need to be summarily removed from the country and sent back to the place and the life that they were trying to get away from.

If you believe what some Conservative politicians and pundits are saying -- that we are a Nation of laws and that these children have to follow the law, then consider this. Turning yourself in at the border and applying for asylum is following the law. It is one of the procedures by which asylum is generally granted. Another is to apply abroad for refugee status and then wait to be admitted. That is what many would prefer to happen here; wouldn't that be great! But wait, let's take a look at what the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras has to say about that:

"Refugee Processing

The Honduran Office does not accept refugee resettlement applications directly. People interested in being considered for the U.S. Refugee Program should contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR is located at Colonia Palmira, Avenida Republica de Panama, Edificio Casa de las Naciones Unidas, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. For more information please go to the UNHCR webpage at or contact the United Nations in Tegucigalpa at (504) 2220-1100 or (504) 2231-0102."

So, no help there. How about the UNHCR website? Well, the office that oversees the Central American countries in question isn't actually in any of those countries -- but rather, it is in Panama.

You can see, from the snapshot chart on the website linked above, that there are about 8,600 people with refugee status or pending asylum claims with UNHCR. That sounds interesting, but when you check the Department of State Reports on Refugee Admissions from Latin America and the Caribbean guess what? Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are not even on the list. Refugees from the region come almost exclusively from Cuba, with a few from Colombia or Venezuela. So nobody is apparently getting to safety by taking the "appropriate" procedures. Coming to the US/Mexico border is their only practical hope of escaping the violence in Central America.

Is it much of a hope though? The USA granted about 1,035 asylum claims to Hondurans from FY 2003 to 2012. Those were people already here, legally or otherwise who have been granted protection over the past ten years. At that rate, if only 20% of the children's claims are deemed sufficient to grant asylum -- those kids can look forward to getting status by the time they are 120 years old.

I understand that the United States can't take responsibility for every child in danger everywhere in the world. Allowing all of the children to remain in the USA with legal status would encourage more to make the very dangerous journey. However, the answer cannot be to simply send them all back on principle; or as some in Congress are now proposing -- to streamline the process to expedite proceedings. These children and families made a perilous journey and their claims should be heard. Many, perhaps even most, will be turned back -- but they deserve due process in the hearing of their cases. If we cheat them with some sort of cattle call court procedure, we will be debasing ourselves as much as them.