Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and
Honduras are showing up illegally, often without any parents or
relatives, at the Texas border. Their numbers could reach 90,000
this year and grow to 150,000 next year - up from only about 6,000
in 2011, according to government estimates.
After making the dangerous journey with the help of human and drug
traffickers who prey upon them, this rush of children and teenagers
are straining U.S. resources, from temporary shelters to immigration
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, told Reuters on Thursday
that establishing refugee application programs in Honduras, El
Salvador and Guatemala, where domestic abuse, gang violence and
poverty are rampant, is the "key" to defusing the growing U.S.
McCain and other members of Congress - both Republicans and
Democrats - say that a refugee program could help discourage minors
from making the perilous journey north alone. At the same time, it
would give some of them a legal way to flee the three nations, which
rank among the top five countries with the highest murder rates in
Many of the children are trying to reunite with relatives already in
the United States, some of them here illegally.
It also would dovetail with the urgent message President Barack
Obama and his top aides are now telegraphing throughout Central
America: that "unaccompanied minors" should not expect to be
welcomed into the United States if they arrive illegally.
If Obama were to opt for a refugee program, he likely would use his
own authority to create it, according to experts, rather than rely
on legislation from Congress. Under such a plan, children could go
to U.S. embassy offices in their home countries and apply for
White House officials would not comment on the next steps it might
take. Instead, they recounted measures recently announced to deal
with the surge of illegally immigrating children.
Those include $40 million to improve Guatemalan border security and
$25 million to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are
vulnerable to organized crime pressures.
Many immigration experts do not believe those steps, even when
coupled with a public relations campaign urging kids to stay at
home, will stop the flow. Long-term U.S. foreign economic aid and
anti-drug programs in these countries might be needed, they have
STEMMING THE TIDE?
The United States has a history of taking in refugees fleeing
difficult situations, from Haitians and Cubans running from domestic
upheavals and Vietnamese fleeing after the fall of Saigon in 1975,
to Kosovars, Iraqis and Afghanis seeking refuge from wars more
"I think it's something we need to discuss," said Democratic
Representative Zoe Lofgren of California. "You don't need
legislation to do that." Lofgren is the senior Democrat on a House
of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
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She added that she was "surprised" that a Republican member of the
House Judiciary Committee, which has deep partisan divides,
approached her this week wanting to talk to her about a refugee
program for children from the three Central American countries.
Like Lofgren, Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois,
a leading advocate of revamping U.S. immigration laws, said in an
interview that he wants to look further into a refugee program
before fully embracing it.
But, he added, "I think it would stem
the tide" of illegal immigrant children while also giving them a
quick, legal avenue to safer environments.
As the White House weighs its options, it likely is considering
political blowback from conservative Republicans in Congress who
already are blaming Obama for creating the crisis at the border by
easing some immigration policies.
"I wouldn't do that," warned Republican Senator Richard Shelby of
Alabama, when asked about a refugee assistance program. "The more
they come, the more will come. There will be hundreds of thousands,"
And then there is a raft of technical issues related to launching an
emergency refugee program.
"Some sort of in-country or regional processing (of refugee
children) is one of the suggestions we have been making," said
Kristen Aster, associate director of the Refugee Council USA.
She said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could get
involved in the coordination, given that children from Guatemala, El
Salvador and Honduras might have to flee their native countries
quickly and travel to a neighboring one once they apply for refugee
status. The United States or other Central American countries could
be their final destinations.
Other specialists including Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need
of Defense, worry that if Obama were to impose a tight overall cap
on the number of refugees, it could leave many deserving children
Doing so, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned in a report
last November, "could ensure their demise."
Meanwhile, Congress is clamoring for some sort of action.
"The journey from Guatemala to the United States has got to be hell
on Earth for some of these kids," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham
of South Carolina said in an interview.
Saying he has an open mind to a refugee program, Graham added, "We'd
be able to make a more intelligent decision about what's legitimate
and you wouldn't have the problem of people showing up, dropped off
at the door (border). That makes sense to me."
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