Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas put a prominent, public face on the immigration crisis this week when he was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas. After a number of hours and a national outcry, he was released. He first revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant three years ago in a New York Times Magazine article, and has since made changing U.S. immigration policy his primary work. Vargas was in Texas to support the thousands of undocumented immigrant children currently detained there by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Children are still fleeing violence in their native Central American home countries, seeking safety, at great risk, in distant lands. The issue is widely described here in the United States as a “border crisis,” but it isn’t that. We are experiencing a profound failure of economic globalization and U.S. foreign policy, amplified by failed, stagnant immigration policies here at home. The latest victims are the children seeking safety, who are instead being cruelly warehoused, shipped past threatening mobs of anti-immigrant extremists and deported back to life-threatening situations.
Tens of thousands of children are now crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, unaccompanied by adults, after making perilous journeys of thousands of miles, often riding atop freight trains that are controlled by gangs. The series of trains is referred to as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.” Children riding the rails must pay hefty fees, and many are beaten, robbed, raped and killed when making the journey north. Some hope to be reunited with parents in the U.S. Others are sent away by their parents in a last-ditch bid to help their children avoid the epidemic violence of their hometowns, places like San Pedro Sula, the economic center of Honduras, which also now bears the distinction of being the murder capital of the world.
The influx of children has overwhelmed the government’s ability to house and feed these kids, let alone provide the level of care that is appropriate for refugee children. In response, the government has been shipping the children around sites across the Southwest.
This transfer has been a bonanza for xenophobes and racists, who have gained media attention for confronting the buses of distressed children. In suburban Murrieta, Calif., a small mob was protesting the transfer. Enrique Morones, the director of Border Angels, a San Diego-based nonprofit, heard about the scene and raced north to witness it. Speaking on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, he said: “It was horrific to see … the children inside the bus and their moms were crying. They don’t speak English, but they understand hate … of the 50 protesters that were there in total, about half of them eventually came out in front of the bus—the protesters were banging the American flag against the bus, screaming these racist taunts.”
Morones compared the scene to Selma, Ala., 50 years ago: “I want to make it very clear that those three buses were turned back by the Murrieta police, not by the protesters, because as the buses were approaching, the Murrieta police stepped in front of the buses and blocked the buses, which made absolutely no sense, because they could have just kept on driving and gone into the Border Patrol facility.” It was the police intervention that gave the protesters the opening they needed.
All sides should heed to message of Pope Francis this week. Referring to the “tens of thousands of children who migrate alone, unaccompanied, to escape poverty and violence,” he said, “This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.” The pope went on to make another key point: “These measures, however, will not be sufficient, unless they are accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and, above all, that promote development in their countries of origin.”
The United States has a long and sadly bloody history of destabilizing democratic governments in the very countries that are now the sources of this latest wave of migration: most notably in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S.-supported military regimes and paramilitaries killed hundreds of thousands of citizens in those countries. The drug cartels of today are the inheritors of that culture of violence. In Honduras, the U.S. supported the 2009 coup d’etat against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. After he was deposed, two successive U.S.-supported regimes have contributed to what University of California professor Dana Frank calls “worsening violence and anarchy.”
Jose Antonio Vargas, who came to the U.S. as an undocumented child himself more than 20 years ago, summed up the situation while in Texas: “These children are not illegal; they are human beings. And they are not a national-security threat. The only threat that these children pose to us is the threat of testing our own conscience.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.