In July, in Murrieta, California, right-wing demonstrators confronted busloads of people, many of them women and small children who had crossed the border fleeing horrific violence. “Nobody wants you! You’re not welcome! Go home!” they shouted. According to the Los Angeles Times, the migrants were on their way to a supervised release program overseen by a religious volunteer group. Instead, blocked by the protesters, they had to return to a border patrol station in San Diego.
The gratuitous cruelty of the American right, of course, isn’t much of a surprise. More shocking is the response of the Obama administration, which is scarcely more hospitable. As the United Nations and others have said, the situation on the border, where 52,000 unaccompanied children have arrived from Mexico and Central America since October, is more a refugee crisis than an immigration one. But rather than acknowledge this, the White House has suggested that it wants to strip some of these children of rights they have under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 law signed by George W. Bush. According to The New York Times, Obama is considering seeking “flexibility” in the law’s requirements, which gives lone child migrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada the right to an immigration hearing and, in the interim, release into the “least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
Even with the law in place, we’re seeing flagrant abuses of border kids’ rights. At some stations, children in diapers have been held in jail cells. “It was horrible,” says Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, who recently visited a facility in Brownsville, Texas. “There were hundreds of kids, little kids. I saw a 3-year-old—at least they said he was 3. I don’t think the kid was that old.” He was being cared for by a rotating group of preteen girl detainees, Lofgren says. “There are 8- and 9-year-old kids sleeping on cement floors with aluminum foil blankets.”
After she and some of her colleagues complained to the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell promised to have all children under 5 removed from jail. That is good news, though it is not the sort of thing that should require congressional action.
Meanwhile, the administration must acknowledge that many of the children—who largely hail from gang-ridden Honduras, the country with the world’s highest murder rate, and neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala—have valid claims to asylum. “The UN said that in their judgment, we should call this a refugee matter, and I think they’re right,” says Lofgren. Indeed, she argues, calling the underlying problem gang warfare minimizes it: “These are armed warlords competing for governance of the countries.”