Monday, July 21, 2014

"Border Children" Crisis in North County

July 18, 2014

The “border children” crisis has arrived in North County.

After initial hearings, Escondido will soon be making its final decision about converting a former nursing home for the elderly into a group home for unaccompanied minors. Today, on the great late Nelson Mandela’s birthday, I am reminded that true freedom rests on being able “to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

I support efforts to provide safe and fair shelter for the youth and adults refugees seeking sanctuary. As a Sociology professor, I have a social justice / human rights framework on immigration and rely on data to understand social problems, such as the current surge of immigration to our borders.

This is a humanitarian issue. Many are fleeing violence and extreme poverty, according to the Immigration Policy Center. The largest sending municipalities are from Honduras and one of them is currently the world’s murder capital due to gang and drug trafficking violence. The Pew Research Center reports “this year, more than 13,000 unaccompanied Honduran children were apprehended at the U.S. border compared with the 968 children apprehended five years ago.” Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras reports that child murder is up 77 percent from last year in Honduras.

It is clear from the United Nations’ recent report, Children on the Run, youth coming to the border do not know about federal or state legislation that recently granted more rights to undocumented youth. However, globally speaking, they do know about the United States being “the land of opportunity.” (Incidentally, this is precisely what my great grandparents believed when they migrated from Ireland on boats to Ellis Island.) A majority of the unaccompanied minors have family already in the United States. Asylum seekers from Central America, in particular, have a permanent federal injunction (Orantes-Hernandez v. Gonzales), which protects their legal process as they seek sanctuary in the United States. For more on this topic, see the amazing work of Lauren Heidbrink who wrote an extremely compelling book called, Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests (2014, University of Pennsylvania Press).

Some hold on to a belief about immigrants and crime. Immigration and undocumented immigration lowers crime or at least does not increase it. Please reread this sentence. Research conducted by Bell and colleagues (2010) from the London School of Economics, along with sociologists such as Robert Sampson (2008) and Jamie Longazel (2013), consistently find an inverse relationship between crime and undocumented immigration.

As to the arguments about “spreading disease,” the youngsters coming here are from countries with higher rates of immunization than the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the countries associated with the unaccompanied minors are El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and each had higher measles vaccination rates than the United States. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador reported no cases of measles since 2008, while the United States has reported 50 to 250 annually.

Our immigration courts system is being greatly tested. The system was designed for 8,000 unaccompanied minors and it currently experiencing over 50,000 this year. According to a report analyzing Homeland Security data on unaccompanied minors, immigration Court juvenile cases make up of 11 percent of the courts’ backlog; in real terms there are 41,641 pending juvenile cases out of the total backlog of 375,503 cases. In a review of psychiatric studies conducted by Michael Dudley and his colleagues (2012), children housed in detention experience the exacerbation of existing mental health conditions and also new ones are created, such as depression and anxiety.

How will we achieve the gold standard of the United States justice system: due process? The government is always represented by an attorney and only about 50 percent of children are in proceedings without one. And, it makes a difference. When children have legal representation, about half of the time they are allowed to stay in the United States.

Inevitably, the issue of “legality” and if someone is “breaking the law” usually comes into discussions of undocumented immigration and certainly in the current border crisis.

First, a person cannot be “illegal,” only actions. So, please drop the “i” word.

Second, the law can be unjust. From slavery to child labor to civil rights for women and others, history shows us that laws change to account for the innate dignity and humanity of all members of society.

I want to be on the “right side of history.” The opening of a group home for the unaccompanied migrant youth in Escondido is a way to show our belief in the inherent dignity and alienable rights for all.