Unaccompanied Minors

America: Have our Values as a Nation Changed as a Result of Illegal Immigration of Unaccompanied Children?

John Mazur, December 2014

The year is 2013, and citizens of the United States are witnessing a type of mass “invasion” of illegal children in great numbers from South America, as well as certain parts of Central America, crossing over its borders unaccompanied. While these children have been crossing the border unaccompanied for many years before 2013, their numbers have increased dramatically. The Pew Research Center, based in Washington, D.C., came up with some interesting statistical information that they obtained as a result of a request it made under the Freedom of Information Act. “From October (2013) through the end of May (2014), 46,932 unaccompanied children, nearly all from Mexico and Central America, were taken into custody, according to data obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Recently released figures show that by the end of June (2014), that number had risen to 57,525.”[1] Most of these children had no choice but to leave their homes due to poverty, abuse and neglect, plus, confronting gang members who made repeated, vicious threats and acts of violence against them. Many families urged their children to leave, despite the dangerous trip that awaited them, in order to be united with other illegal family relatives already living in the United States. Unfortunately, numerous children died or were abused before ever reaching their destination. Hoping to find refuge in the United States, these children were not prepared for the unwelcomed reception they received. Many were held in detention cells with very little food, no showers and deportation proceedings.

Given these circumstances, the United States and many local state governments were forced to handle what evolved into an urgent problem on many levels. Another key question that arose during this time: Should these unaccompanied children who seek refuge in the United States be treated as “illegals” or “refugees?” The U.S., already faced with economic problems of its own, would not need another financial burden placed on them which calls for housing or properly providing for the overwhelming influx of these children. Yet, American citizens still remained divided, as evidenced by numerous protests which took place in certain parts of the country during the spring and summer of 2014. In a report filed by Shellie Nelson on July 15, 2014 for WQAD 8, Arizona demonstrations took place in a small town just a few miles north of the Mexican border where it was expected that Federal officials would send illegal children for housing. “Protesters positioned themselves to block the road and held ‘No open borders’ signs. Counterprotesters, however, held ‘Bienvenidos Welcome’ signs.”[2] Some protesters strongly felt that they should be sent back to their home countries because they were entering illegally. Others believed, as Americans, and in good conscious, that moral obligations was reason enough to let them stay, go through proper screening, and try to start a new life as Americans. Many families in Central and South America felt that their children should take the risk of making the long journey to the United States and face possible deportation instead of living in unsafe and violent communities in their home countries.

As the issue of illegal, unaccompanied children entering the U.S. began to take its place as a significantly growing situation, the United Nations stepped forward to promote its belief that this group of unfortunate children should be regarded as “refugees.” In an article written by Mario Trujillo appearing in The Hill, “A United Nations agency is calling for the United States and other countries to refrain from lumping all migrants fleeing Central American countries into the same category.”[3] As further pointed out in the same article by a senior advisor in the UN, “What we are saying is this should be viewed as a humanitarian situation and anyone who wants to claim asylum should have access to those procedures…whatever country they find themselves in. This is the line we always take in any situation.”[4] Most Americans agree with the United Nations that these children should be regarded as “refugees” and not as “undocumented illegal residents” in view of the ongoing violence in their home countries. However, American citizens also take the position that illegal child immigrants are either a burden or an advantage to our society due to the fact that they are coming here in enormous numbers. Are our nation’s values different from those of other countries around the world when considering allowing these children to stay as refugees rather than immediately deporting them? These children have been given no other alternative but to escape the harsh realities that they would face if they remained in their home countries. A large percentage of U.S. citizens believe that these children be allowed to have access to citizenship or legal permanent residency, while a small percentage prefer immediate deportation.

America has always been viewed as a safe haven for immigrants. In the mid to late 1800’s, millions of immigrants came to the United States from Europe and other parts of the world to escape political and economic upheavals, as well as religious persecution in their countries. However, life for immigrants and their families settling down in the U.S. was not always simple. A document issued by the Library of Congress states that ”Social tensions were also part of the immigrant experience. Often stereotyped and discriminated against, many immigrants suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were ‘different’.”[5] Despite the fact that many social tensions were created by the settlement of these immigrants, “The newcomers helped transform American society and culture, demonstrating that diversity, as well as unity, is a source of national strength.”[6]

Nevertheless, immigration still remains a source of controversy among American citizens, especially when it involves illegal unaccompanied children crossing into the United States. Often, a dim, negative view of immigrants is still maintained in today’s society, despite the fact that America is a nation born of immigrants. There are also many concerns and fears that immigrants, upon being allowed to remain in the U.S., will not conform to the American way of life, such as carrying on cultures and traditions. However, contrary to that belief, immigrant families have been enriching our society by bringing their knowledge, cultures and traditions to this nation. Economically, illegal immigrants with little or no educational background have filled positions that Americans might not otherwise fill, such as in the areas of domestic help, restaurants and construction. Additionally, illegal children have not been idly waiting around while their status is being determined. The U.S. government has provided access for illegal children to attend public schools in different parts of the country. This important step, however, does not come without any consequences. Many schools have faced overcrowding and were greatly unprepared because of the additional number of children. School districts have the problem of addressing issues such as health care and teaching the English language as a second language.

Another worrisome fact disturbing Americans: terrorists. Since the widespread takeover by ISIS, or the Islamic State, in the Middle East and other parts of the world, the Federal government has taken steps to tighten American border security to keep these known terrorists out as well as drug traffickers and their cartels. Gangs, drug and sex trafficking are all ingredients that are needed in order to promote the chain of violence and unsafe living conditions for families in poverty-stricken areas of Central and South America. Americans have also expressed their opinions by pointing out that it is the foreign country’s problem to solve the mass departure of its residents to the United States. Foreign countries, they point out, are responsible for developing economic and stimulated growth to end poverty and also combat the growing problem of gangs, sexual abuse and violence, and drug cartels and traffickers. Sending Federal financial aid has also been suggested to help the affected countries rebound from its on-going problems.

Will immigration reform help to reestablish values and beliefs? While this country confronts the overwhelming influx of unaccompanied illegal children, legislators on both sides of the aisle will need to work together to reach fair and effective policy-making. More importantly, American attitudes towards the word “immigrant” must be turned into a more positive one rather than negative. Immigrants are traditionally looked upon by Americans as “trouble-makers,” they do not speak English, they do not pay taxes, but are still entitled to certain benefits. Immigrants may come to rely on these benefits as a dependence or entitlement while citizens must meet normal requirements. They may also be criminals with an established record, or, even worse, known terrorists. On the other hand, immigrants view America as a land of opportunity where other immigrants are already living and have a better life overall. For immigration reform to work, officials must remind U.S. citizens of the rights and privileges that they already enjoy, while discussing ways in which immigration reform can be fixed in order for it to be more effective and fair. When discussions are centered on the word “illegal,” that’s when American citizens are automatically thinking that these immigrants broke the law and that they successfully entered the country without going through the legal system. Then, the question that most Americans ask themselves is: Why did our ancestors and/or current immigrants from other parts of the world have to go through strict and tough requirements to obtain legal citizenship while others now cross the border illegally, but are still granted rights and privileges?

Americans have expressed their points of view for and against illegal immigration of unaccompanied children. Americans must realize that they are a nation where freedom and the rights of citizens are guaranteed, whether for political, economic or religious reasons. Our Forefathers laid the foundation for the principles of citizenship by designing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Would they not favor the rights of these unaccompanied children to come to America, especially given the hostile environment they are forced to live in? Perhaps United States citizens are once again being called upon to lend a helping hand, rather than simply using deportation as a means for these illegal children to return to a daily existence of crime and poverty.

Notes
[1] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Children 12 and under are fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors at U.S. border.” Pew Research Center, July 22, 2014. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/22/children-12-and-under-are-fastest-growing-group-of-unaccompanied-minors-at-u-s-border/

[2] Shellie Nelson. “Demonstrators square off over unaccompanied immigrant children.” WQAD 8 Quad Cities, July 15, 2014. http://wqad.com/2014/07/15/demonstrators-square-off-over-unaccompanied-immigrant-children/

[3] Mario Trujillo. “UN Hoping for Refugee Status for Immigrants.” The Hill, July 8, 2014. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/211551-un-group-hoping-for-refugee-status-for-immigrants

[4] Mario Trujillo. “UN Hoping for Refugee Status for Immigrants.” The Hill, July 8, 2014. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/211551-un-group-hoping-for-refugee-status-for-immigrants

[5] “Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900. Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900.” Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/riseind/immgnts/

[6] Ibid.

Further Reading

The following is a listing of commentaries and blogs dealing with the issue of illegal unaccompanied children entering the United States:

Curtis Skinner. “Most Americans see unaccompanied immigrant kids as refugees: poll.” Reuters, July 30, 2014. Accessed November 9, 2014. InfoBase Learning: Issues & Controversies.

Jon Herskovitz. “U.S. tells Dallas county no need for it to house immigrants: commissioner.” Reuters, July 31, 2014. Accessed November 9, 2014. InfoBase Learning: Issues & Controversies.

Jairo Ramos. “Americans Think Illegal Immigrants Should Stay – and Leave.” npr – Code Switch, March 1, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/02/28/283921306/americans-think-illegal-immigrants-should-stay-and-leave

Ashley A. Smith. “Residents Protest illegal immigration of children.” News-Press.Com, July 19, 2014. http://www.news-press.com/story/news/local/fort-myers/2014/07/19/immigration-protest-in-southwest-florida/12882307/

Tony Payan. “The media cycle, political theater and the border crisis myth.” The Hill, August 1, 2014. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/immigration/213805-the-media-cycle-political-theater-and-the-border-crisis-myth

Joshua Holland. “America’s Response to Child Refugees on the Border is Downright Shameful.” Moyers & Company, July 11, 2014. http://billmoyers.com/2014/07/11/americas-refugee-problem-is-trivial-our-response-is-downright-shameful/

Worcester State University Fall 2020