On the front page of Thursday’s New York Times was an article entitled “Border Centers Struggle to Handle Onslaught of Young Migrants”, which reported on the growing number of unaccompanied children and young people who have been apprehended crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico. The arrest and detention of so many children and young people has put great strains on the Border Patrol and other federal and state agencies responsible for protecting minors in detention from violence and exploitation, while providing them with shelter, food and sanitation.
The article notes that since January, an estimated 50,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended on the Mexican border, mostly along the Rio Grande in Texas. Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that number will grow to 60,000 by the end of the year.
The children who have been coming north through Mexico to the United States are mostly from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These countries, which are still struggling to overcome the devastating effects of the state violence and civil wars of the 1980’s, are now experiencing unprecedented levels of criminal violence and coercion by transnational drug cartels and gangs that exert increasing control over everyday life.
A growing number of impoverished families in Central America are being forced to make the otherwise unthinkable choice of sending their unaccompanied children north to the United States in the hope of protecting them from being recruited into the criminal underworld of trans-national drug trafficking and gang violence. These unaccompanied children are crossing our borders in the hope of somehow finding refuge and safety in the United States despite the risk of being kidnapped, raped, robbed and murdered at every stage of their journey. All of this demonstrates how desperate the situation is in their home countries.
The growing numbers of unaccompanied minors overwhelming the resources and facilities of our borders is a reminder of the urgent need to find just and humane ways to address the problem of unauthorized immigration into our country. Migration to our country from Mexico and Central America is driven by the “push” of severe poverty, which for the poor makes it difficult to earn a living wage and meet the basic needs of their families, as well as the increasing violence and social disorder and the “pull” based on the increasing demand in this country for low-skilled workers. These “push and pull” factors are what’s behind the estimated 11.2 million undocumented workers now residing in the United States and the approximately 300,000 migrants who enter our country without authorization each year.
As the recent influx of unaccompanied minors has highlighted, the dangers of crossing our southern border are many. Unscrupulous smugglers — referred to as coyotes — extort exorbitant amounts of money to transport them to the United States under dangerous conditions. Along the way, smugglers and criminal gangs exploit migrants in every way imaginable. Other migrants attempt to cross the desert on their own and thousands have died from heat, exposure and thirst.
Throughout the world, the desperation of the poorest in the impoverished and underdeveloped global south has led to an increasing number of unauthorized migrants seeking work and livelihood in the affluent and developed global north. Crossing the Mediterranean to Spain and Italy, thousands of immigrants have drowned when their overcrowded and rickety boats overturned as they attempted landfall.
Pope Francis, in his first pastoral visit outside of Rome, went to the Italian island of Lampedusa last year, where many migrants have perished seeking to enter Europe. He declared his personal solidarity and that of the Church with the migrants and condemned what he described as the “globalization of indifference” that ignores the underlying causes of migration but instead seeks a solution by building ever-higher border fences and creating more draconian regimes of interdiction and deportation.
The Catholic bishops of the United States oppose “enforcement only” immigration policies. Militarizing the border, increasing deportations and border fences do not address the underlying causes of unauthorized immigration. While accepting the right and obligation of every nation to control its borders, we support a comprehensive reform that would provide a path for earned legalization for those immigrants who are already in the United States; a worker program that would permit foreign-born workers to enter the country safely and legally; policies that would promote family cohesion and reunification and promote sustainable economic development and civil society in Mexico and Central America.