This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com. Republished with permission.
Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.
Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.
As labor journalist David Bacon has shown, the children-at-the-border story was first brought to the attention of the media by anti-immigrant organizations, beginning with the radical right-wing Breitbart News Network in Texas. Their narrative focused on President Obama’s supposed failure to control the border, his timid gestures aimed at granting temporary legal status to some undocumented youth through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the attempts of Congressional liberals to promote what they called “comprehensive immigration reform,” and of course those children “invading” the U.S.
In fact, there was nothing new about the so-called surge. Rather, the Breitbart Network turned a long-term issue into a “crisis” for political reasons, and the media, politicians, and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum took the bait.
Breitbart’s Texas bureau chief Brandon Darby “ignited a national firestorm,” the network claimed proudly, when he released a set of exclusive photos of overcrowded detention facilities for child detainees. Darby did not explain how he was able to gain access to what he called “internal federal government photos.” He did, however, provide an explanation for what Breitbart called the “invasion”: the children “know they will not be turned away and that they will be provided for.” In other words, it was the fault of Obama, the Democrats, and the liberals. The stage was set for a Republican and populist backlash.
Pro-Obama voices like Deval Patrick and some immigrant rights organizations played right into the sensationalist nativist narrative. “There’s a humanitarian reason to try to find a solution, try to find a way to help,” Patrick stated, insisting that at stake was an issue of “love of country and lessons of faith”—and that it was explicitly not a political issue.
Massachusetts Republican politicians, like Lynn’s Mayor Judith Kennedy Flanagan, complained instead about the impact on their communities, turning a fiscal problem into an occasion for xenophobia. “It's gotten to the point where the school system is overwhelmed, our health department is overwhelmed, the city's budget is being [un]sustainably altered in order [to] accommodate all of these admissions in the school department,” she stated. State Representative Mark Lombardo concurred: “We just can't afford it. We're not adequately taking care of our own children; our own veterans, our own families who are struggling here in Massachusetts. We gotta put American families first.”
Hundreds of protesters rallied on the Boston Common on July 26th demanding that the country put “Americans before illegals.” It was easy for wealthy liberals, many commentators added, to foist the children on poor communities, but what about the domestic poor, the homeless, the veterans who can’t get access to medical services? Why, under such circumstances, should we direct resources to Central American children? (Such Republican racial identity-based appeals to the white working class date back to the presidency of Richard Nixon.)
These two seemingly clashing narratives—the moral, humanitarian imperative to help children in need and the plight of strapped cities and Americans in need—turn out to neatly complement each other. Both play the game of victimology in the service of party politics. Each asks essentially the same question: Do Republicans or Democrats get more points for defending the neediest victims?
Unfortunately, many liberals and some immigrant rights organizations have failed to offer their own analysis that reached beyond generalized good will and support for the Democrats. “We stand for justice and we care for all children in need!” the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition declared wholeheartedly, but not very illuminatingly. In addition to “standing up for all kids,” the purpose of its August 7th counter-rally seemed to be simply to support Patrick’s offer to create temporary detention centers in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, by disseminating Breitbart’s dramatic photos and adopting the right’s basic narrative, liberals missed an opportunity to go beyond a sterile debate and take a more meaningful look at the structural issues at stake.
In fact, the so-called “crisis” of these last months is anything but new, while the “debate” over where to temporarily detain the children is beside the point. The number of Central American youths crossing the U.S.-Mexican border has been rising steadily since 2000. Figures for minors apprehended at the border have gone up from a few thousand a year as the twenty-first century began, to 6,000-8,000 annually through 2011, 13,625 in 2012, and 24,668 in 2013. A study released in February 2014 predicted that as many as 60,000 children were likely to be apprehended this year. The overwhelming of U.S. detention facilities was, in this sense, predictable. So Darby’s June news scoop should hardly have been a surprise, if anyone other than specialists had been paying attention.
The situation is not really hard to grasp. There are three main reasons that Central American youth are crossing the border: they are fleeing lack of opportunity; they are fleeing violence; and they are seeking to reunite with parents and other family members already in the United States. Although the media talk about “Central American children,” almost all of the detainees are, in fact, coming from only three of the six countries of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are almost none from Belize, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica. Anybody who remembers the 1980s can probably guess why. The enormous quantities of military “aid” that the United States poured into Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras helped create an environment of violently enforced inequality whose bitter fruits are still being reaped.
Under a series of laws and court decisions since the 1990s, minors from Central America are granted special treatment when caught crossing the border. Rather than being deported like Mexican children (who cross in the same numbers and for similar reasons), Central American youth are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which holds them in its own facilities (rather than U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers) and provides them with services while it locates and investigates family members to whom they could be released. At that point, a lengthy hearing process begins to determine whether each minor is eligible for immigration relief. If not, she or he will be deported. These children are termed “unaccompanied” because they cross the border without parents or legal guardians, but the vast majority of them do have family in the U.S. and are coming to join them.
Deval Patrick and Judith Flanagan are talking past each other by focusing on different parts of this process. Patrick offered to find a facility in the state to house the youth during the few weeks when they are in the custody of the ORR and fully funded by the federal government. His “solution” is, in that sense, a cheap kind of “humanitarianism.” Flanagan and the anti-immigrant demonstrators are complaining about the costs to communities like Lynn, where hundreds of undocumented Guatemalan children have indeed been released to family members. They have a point. As many online commentators have indicated, undocumented families tend to live in poor urban areas like Lynn that are already struggling with severe underfunding. In other words, they are the communities least equipped to provide the kinds of locally mandated services like education that the newcomers need.
So what’s the real crisis and can it be solved?
Let’s start with what’s truly at stake here. First, U.S. policies directly led to today’s crises in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Since Washington orchestrated the overthrow of the reformist, democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, it has consistently cultivated repressive military regimes, savagely repressed peasant and popular movements for social change, and imposed economic policies including so-called free trade ones that favor foreign investors and have proven devastating to the rural and urban poor.
Refugees from U.S.-sponsored dirty wars in Guatemala and El Salvador—mostly peasants whose communities had been subjected to scorched-earth policies and the depredations of right-wing death squads—began to pour into the United States in the 1980s. The refugee flood from Honduras didn’t begin until the United States supported a military coup against that country’s elected leftist president in 2009. The youths crossing the border today are often the children and grandchildren of those initial refugees, and are fleeing the endemic violence and economic destruction left behind by the wars and the devastation that resulted from them. In other words, the policies that led to the present “crisis” were promoted over the decades with similar degrees of enthusiasm by Republicans and Democrats.
Second, an enormous demand for undocumented labor had already drawn the parents of many of these children to the United States where they clean houses and yards, wash dishes, and grow and process food. Their underpaid labor helps sustain the U.S. economy. For generations, this country’s immigration policy has focused on using Mexicans and Central Americans as “workers” without granting them legal and human rights. But workers are people and people have children. In other words, the present crisis stems in part from the way our economy depends on separating parents from their children in order to exploit their cheap labor—and then our horror or dismay when they want to be reunited.
Finally, the communities and school systems that the federal government expects to receive the border-crossing youth need more federal support. Many of the locales receiving immigrants are indeed in crisis. If, thanks to federal legislation and federal agencies, these children are being released in large numbers to communities in which schools are already underfunded, then the federal government should guarantee the services that it requires communities to provide them. Instead of spending billions of dollars annually underwriting detention, deportation, and the further militarization of the borderlands, it should direct those funds to fulfilling human needs.
Immigrant rights organizations should be criticizing both parties for their policies in Central America (including President Obama’s free trade agenda), their economic and immigration policies (that criminalize workers), and the ways they are pitting immigrant youth against poor Americans in a struggle for scarce resources.
Of course, that’s not how the story is being told. Instead, our politicians, the media, and various organizations have simply been posturing. Arguments that take the “humanitarian” position and those that use the “crisis” to try to undermine the administration’s flimsy gestures towards relief for undocumented youth, as well as those that protest the potential impact on communities like Lynn, are sadly incomplete. We are in the midst of a series of crises that are perfectly real. They just aren’t the ones that either side is talking about.
Aviva Chomsky’s most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Beacon Press, 2014). She is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts.