Trouble at the border

Professor Emerita Silvia Arrom comments on the crisis at the Mexican border

Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Emerita Silvia Arrom

Some 57,000 migrant children, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, are stranded at the U.S. southern border awaiting immigration hearings. 

President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to build more detention facilities, conduct more surveillance, and hire more border patrol agents and immigration judges to ease the mounting humanitarian and legal crisis caused by the surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally. Obama’s request is the newest chapter in a long history of problems with American borders and immigration laws.

Silvia Arrom, professor emerita of history and Latin American studies, spoke with Brandeis Now about the possible implications of this crisis.

Is the increase in the number of Central American children stranded at the border a product of turmoil in their birth nation or does U.S. policy play a role, too? 

The children are escaping grinding poverty, gangs and drug violence while the U.S. has a broken immigration system and has lost the war on drugs. The immediate cause of the stunning surge in migration, however, was a rumor the U.S. was allowing children in, fueled by human traffickers who have a lucrative deal sending migrants to the U.S. The rumor took on a life of its own, as people saw this as a once in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the U.S., especially those who wanted to reunite with family. 

Why are so many coming from Honduras and Guatemala?

It’s significant that most are coming from Honduras and Guatemala and not from neighboring Nicaragua, which is equally poor. We have consistently supported coups against democratically elected governments that proposed social reforms, most recently the 2009 military coup in Honduras. In the aftermath of that coup, government institutions were weakened. Mild social reforms were rolled back and the country is a mess. In contrast, Nicaragua has had social reform. People there can hope for a better life even though they’re poor. The difference in Guatemala, and especially Honduras, is that these nations  have weak governments and weak civic institutions, allowing criminal gangs and cartels to make huge inroads. 

Can a child at the border be granted citizenship?

Yes, refugees must go before a judge and prove that they’re in danger of being killed or persecuted if they return to their native country. In 2008, President Bush signed a law to insure minors have due process to qualify for asylum or face deportation. But there aren’t enough judges to hear all these children’s cases. President Obama has asked for more money for more judges and he’s also promising to streamline the immigration process. 

What are the greatest threats to a child’s health and safety during the journey to the border?

It’s a long, dangerous journey across jungle and rivers. When children get to Mexico they hop on the train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast). Hundreds of people hold on for dear life. Some fall off, some are killed, some are maimed. Some kids are raped; some are kidnapped. Some die of dehydration in the desert. 

What is going to happen with this migration?

My guess is it’s going to diminish. News is getting out that resident status is not guaranteed and Mexico just announced a series of measures to stop the migrants from riding the train. But they might not stop and instead find another, even more dangerous way. 

What policies does the U.S. need to implement to strengthen the border and take care of the children?

At the humanitarian level, we have to take care of these children and make sure they are afforded due process. They have to get their hearings quickly so they won’t be in legal limbo. We need comprehensive immigration reform. Our labor market requires more people than our immigration laws allow to enter legally and the waiting time, even for family reunification, can be 10 years. We need to pay more attention to Central America. We have to support its nations’ attempts to build democratic institutions and enact social reform. 

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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