How the far right has used the refugee crisis - and ignored suffering children - for short-term political gain
One recent Sunday morning, a 16-year-old Guatemalan named Marcos sat on a bench in an open-air soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, waiting to use the telephone. Marcos was a short boy, with straight black hair, sideburns and Mayan features. A sky-blue backpack containing all of his possessions hung from one of his shoulders. He wanted to call his parents, poor farmers living in a village in southwestern Guatemala called Pueblo Nuevo, approximately 2,100 miles away.
The region's coastal climate and volcanic soil make for ideal plantation country: coffee, sugar cane, bananas. Over the past decade, though, Guatemala has become increasingly violent and lawless. The country had long been used as a route for trafficking cocaine north, from Colombia to the United States. But the bloody Mexican drug wars of recent years have pushed cartel activity deeper into Guatemala and neighboring Honduras and El Salvador.
Alongside the cartels, Los Angeles gang culture took root in Central America after members of street gangs (maras) such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, originally formed in prisons in Southern California, were deported from the U.S. Occasionally working with the cartels, the maras terrorize their home countries with kidnapping, robbery and murder. Kids as young as nine are often recruited by force.
Not long ago, gang members began attempting to groom Marcos. "They wanted me to kill people with money, rob them," he says. Marcos decided to flee instead. With his friend Ibai, he made his way to Nogales, a dangerous journey that took nearly a month. They hopped the freight train nicknamed La Bestia, "the Beast," which runs the length of Mexico, its many perils infamous among migrants. A girl running to catch the train with Marcos slipped from the ladder, tumbled onto the tracks and was crushed to death. He guesses she was about 20. He and Ibai slept on the top of the train at night and huddled between cars during the day.
Here in the soup kitchen, Marcos looks impossibly young, like a frightened boy, so slight and smooth-faced he could pass for a middle-school student. He speaks to me shyly, somewhat reluctantly at first. The faith groups who run the soup kitchen provided the clothes he's wearing: denim shorts, sneakers, a black Beats by Dre T-shirt with the words REALLY SOUND MATTERS on the back. He hasn't yet figured out how he will cross the border, or where he'll end up in the U.S. He has no particular destination in mind, no relatives waiting for him on the other side, no money to pay a coyote. "We're scared," Marcos says, through a translator. "We don't have anyone helping us. We're trying to figure out what to do."
As broken as Washington has become, immigration had seemed like the one issue our elected leaders might be capable of handling in 2014. The politics, for one thing, appeared relatively easy. Fears about "border security" had faded alongside Lou Dobbs' career: The migration flow of undocumented immigrants had fallen to net zero by 2012, down from a growth of 400,000 per year under George W. Bush. And congressional Republicans had strong incentive to cooperate with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform, for reasons of basic self-preservation (what with the exploding Latino electorate) and with deep pressure coming from the business community. Beyond all of that, it seemed unfathomable – un-American, really – to allow the dysfunction hobbling our immigration system to continue, when the immigrant remains so fundamental to our self-identity, our foundational myth. To reject this aspect of America would feel like an act of nihilism, a national death wish akin to the Italian parliament suddenly deciding to ban carbohydrates, Australia paving all of its beaches, Jamaica's state radio switching to an all-metal format.
And yet somehow, in a cruel twist, the most disadvantaged children in the hemisphere have become victimized a second time, caught up in the farce that is modern Republican politics. Make no mistake, one party is overwhelmingly culpable in exploiting, rather than trying to rectify, the crisis at the border involving unaccompanied minors like Marcos – a crisis that, as of the August congressional recess, not only remains unresolved but also seems to have definitively ended any chances for a broader immigration-reform bill, at least until after the midterm elections. In perhaps its most stunning defeat yet, the House Republican establishment wound up fully capitulating to the troglodyte wing of the party, who had been rallied, insanely, by Sen. Ted Cruz – born in Canada! the son of a Cuban granted asylum in the United States! – and who once again insisted on a symbolic, meaningless vote on a Tea Party-approved bill with absolutely no chance of getting through the Senate and no purpose, really, beyond proving to their constituents how mean-spirited they could be.
"The broader story here is that one branch of government is completely disabled by a civil war," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a Washington think tank, who has spent years advocating for immigration reform. "The supplemental funding bill that Obama requested to deal with the border crisis would have passed in 24 hours a generation ago. But the House can no longer do its job. John Boehner was humiliated. It's a war of attrition, and in the House, the Tea Party won."
A five-minute drive from the soup kitchen, someone in possession of a blue passport can queue up at the Mariposa border crossing, where Mexican men will try to squeegee your windshield or sell you a Popsicle, and eventually enter the United States, with barely a glance from the customs officer on duty. Drive another 10 minutes through the sleepy border town of Nogales, Arizona, and you'll come to an industrial zone, where an anonymous warehouse, barely visible behind a brick wall topped with concertina wire, happens to be operated by the Department of Homeland Security. As part of a post-9/11 spending bonanza, the massive place had been used primarily as a storage facility – until this past May, when border patrol agents in Texas' Rio Grande Valley found themselves overwhelmed by a surge of young migrants from Central America, and the Nogales warehouse was hastily reconfigured as a processing center. Most Americans first heard the term "unaccompanied minors" in this context, as shocking photographs of makeshift holding cells in Texas and Arizona began to appear in the press: migrant children, all under 18, huddled in overcrowded, kennel-like chain-link cages, many sprawled on the floor under silver Mylar blankets, some as young as three years old.
Since last October, 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained at the border. That number is expected to rise to at least 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year. Such an obvious and immediate humanitarian crisis, one involving children, would, you'd think, at least temporarily transcend crude political calculus. But Republicans thought they espied a Katrina moment – and even better, one tied to an issue that analysts had been predicting would only play to Democrats' strengths.
The sort of immigration reform being debated – providing a path to citizenship for many of the 11.5 million undocumented aliens currently living in the U.S., and creating a more rational system for granting visas to fill job openings – has very little to do with the migrant children at the border, which is essentially a refugee crisis. Nonetheless, the tragic imagery stirred nativist fears in a dispiriting number of Americans. And overnight, the politics of immigration began to shift.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry announced he would send the National Guard to the border. In Arizona, Sen. John McCain called for an aggressive deportation process, so "the parents who paid thousands of dollars to smuggle their children north to the United States see planeloads of them landing back at home – their money wasted." Openly racist fear-mongering came courtesy of talk-radio grotesques like Laura Ingraham, who asked on her show, "Who's to blame if, heaven forbid, an American citizen dies of a communicable disease spread by these folks spreading all over the country?" (In fact, all of the children are screened and vaccinated.)
"What this crisis at the border did was make you think the border was not secure, when, in reality, our border is more secure than it has been since the Seventies," notes David Leopold, a prominent immigration attorney who has served as president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and directed the immigration-law curriculum at Case Western Reserve University. "Obama's own supporters are calling him the Deporter in Chief! But this border crisis gave validity to the Republicans' lame excuses for not doing anything. The most recent excuse, of course, being that they couldn't trust the president to enforce the law. Well, now they had a visual to go along with it."
One's political persuasion also tended to dictate which of the myriad of factors contributing to the border surge wound up receiving the most emphasis. Conservatives insisted the migrants had been encouraged by our mushy, amnesty-loving president – pointing, specifically, to a directive issued by Obama in 2012 preventing many undocumented immigrants who qualified for the DREAM Act from being deported. Liberals countered by pointing out that the policy doesn't apply to any of the current wave of migrant children, and that, actually, the law protecting these particular kids from swift deportation was signed, in one of his final acts as president, by none other than George W. Bush, as part of an anti-trafficking bill strongly backed by evangelical Christians.
Unsurprisingly, kids like Marcos became silent, secondary characters in their own breaking-news event, useful props to illustrate a talking point, the truths of their lives mostly lost in the noise. Marcos and Ibai have been in Nogales for about a week, getting meals at the soup kitchen, known locally as El Comedor, and sleeping at a nearby shelter while trying to plot their next move. They have to be careful in Mexico, with Central Americans being prime targets for bandits, hustlers and extortionists. Nogales used to be something of a tourist town for day-tripping Americans, with tchotchke shops, restaurants and a red-light district catering to gringos. But fear of cartel violence choked off most of the southbound traffic. One of the grandest-looking homes in Nogales, a yellow hilltop mansion with a wraparound balcony, is operated by one of the cartels as a lookout station to peer over the border wall and scout the Arizona desert.
The cartels aren't the only risk. Four days before my visit to El Comedor, masked police officers stormed another shelter in Nogales and robbed all the migrants at gunpoint. The courtyard of El Comedor is surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and mostly covered by tarps and a ramshackle tin roof. Men stand outside, guarding the front entrance.
When Marcos was finally able to get a call through to his parents, they told him, "If you're not sure about going to the U.S., come back."
"But I can't," Marcos says to me afterward, "because I already took the risk to come here. And if I go back, the mara will be waiting for me." Around this point, the translator, a burly 45-year-old Mexican man named Santos, just deported from Wisconsin himself, stops speaking. His English isn't fantastic, so I assume he's struggling to find the right words. Then I notice a glistening in his eyes. Abruptly, he stands and marches over to a corner, breathing heavily as he stares through the chain-link fencing and attempts to compose himself. Marcos and Ibai glance at him, then at me, then down at their shoes, seeming ashamed of themselves for having embarrassed the older man.
Before we say goodbye, Ibai says, "We try to have positive minds. We will never lose our faith."
Three weeks later, members of Congress left Washington for their annual five-week summer recess. To deal with the crisis on the border, Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency funds, but Republicans in the Senate filibustered a vote on the bill. In the House, Boehner and the Republican leadership suffered an unprecedented rout when the Tea Party wing, stirred up by Cruz during an 11th-hour meeting over pizzas and Dr Peppers, revolted against a proposed compromise. In the end, the bill passed by the House allotted only $694 million to the crisis – and that was to speed up deportations and provide more National Guard troops. The Republicans also voted to reverse Obama's program protecting DREAM Act-eligible immigrants.
Neither bill has a chance of advancing in the Senate; the vote was pure theater. "They've been abrogating their duties all year, and now they pass a message bill," an exasperated Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) tells me on the afternoon of the vote. When I ask if the unaccompanied minors complicate the politics of broader reform for Democrats, he shoots back, "Not at all. The kids made the Republicans show their cards. They kept saying they wanted reform, but then they went for a punitive, nasty bill and for wasting more money at the border. Sometimes, you have to let the train crash."
Boehner's allies, according to some close to the proceedings, entered the battle feeling exhausted. As did the speaker himself. The plan all along had been for the speaker to step down and be replaced by his anointed successor, Majority Leader Eric Cantor – but in a shocking primary-season upset no one expected, Cantor found himself ousted by a Tea Party challenger who campaigned aggressively against the majority leader's support for immigration reform. Now, in what was likely to be his last major test before the midterms, Boehner utterly failed, caught flat-footed, once again, by the suicidal insanity of the Tea Party caucus.
Still, polling has been terrible for Obama on the border crisis, yet another chaotic world event that makes him appear ineffective and unable to exercise control. And the Democratic response has been far from unified, with members from more conservative states running scared from the issue. Says one high-ranking Democratic insider, speaking anonymously, "In politics, there are only two groups you always know you can come to the rescue of: war widows and orphan children. How we've screwed this up is beyond me."
In the Senate, Democrats acceded to Republican demands for increased spending on border security, before the comprehensive immigrant reform bill even came to the floor, says someone close to the proceedings. "And in the end," he adds, "we got three Republican votes! What else can we fucking do? We're not at a point where both parties are equally to blame for the dysfunction in this city."
As for the unaccompanied minors, advocates fear that a number of the children already here, because of the narrowness of U.S. asylum law, might be sent back to persecution and, in some cases, certain death. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat representing part of San Antonio, believes the ways in which we define refugees must be updated for the 21st century – that connecting refugee status to specific enemy states, at a time when non-state actors like Al Qaeda or narcotrafficking cartels make for bigger threats, is leftover thinking from the Cold War.
"One of the ways we demonstrated to communist dictators that we disapproved of their government was by accepting their people as refugees," Castro points out. "Granting refugee status to these children would be a way of demonstrating how insidious these cartels are, and that the U.S. stands against them. When I hear people click their tongues and say, 'Who's going to pay for it?' I say, 'Well, the same people who paid for Cubans fleeing Castro or Jews fleeing the Soviet Union.'"
Another way to express our disapproval of drug cartels, of course, would be to reconsider our insane national drug policy, with its futile and hypocritical efforts at prohibition that only end up enriching the cartels by pushing the incredibly lucrative recreational drug economy underground. Unfortunately, increased "border security" is generally shorthand for Homeland Security boondoggles; the private prison industry, which operates many of the detention centers holding undocumented immigrants, also benefits handsomely.
Most of the Democratic insiders I interviewed predicted that Obama would take further executive actions before the end of the summer recess. "We're Americans: We're not going to let kids starve at the gate, and we're not going to break the law to deport them," says Rep. Garcia. "That means we're left with this quandary, where if the Republicans refuse to release any money, the president will have to act on his own."
By July, more than 30,000 minors had been transferred out of the shelters to await hearings; the United Nations Refugee Agency, based on interviews with 400 kids, estimated about 60 percent had legitimate needs for protection, but Obama's directive to accelerate deportation hearings has advocates worried. Though entitled to hearings, the children are not guaranteed legal representation. Thus far, more than 3,300 of the children have been sent to New York, the second-highest number, after Texas. (The children are being matched up with relatives or family sponsors, and New York has one of the highest concentrations of Central Americans in the country.) But rather than request a mobilization of the National Guard, New York City announced a coordinated task force to ensure the children would receive adequate support. At a briefing in Manhattan about the effort, Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, reminded everyone that the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, only a few miles away, does not read, "Give me your best and your brightest."
In Queens, I meet one of the unaccompanied minors who recently arrived in New York, a 17-year-old named Juan who fled gang violence in San Alejo, a small town in El Salvador. Over the past two months, Juan rode buses across his country and illegally crossed into Guatemala by river. He went days without sleeping and eating, bribing soldiers for the right to pass. In Mexico, his coyote abandoned him at a safe house; he only figured out where to go next by looking at a map of Mexico in a grocery store. In Monterrey, a stranger agreed to pose as his guardian and buy him a bus ticket to McAllen, Texas. After crossing the border, Juan presented himself to immigration officials, who yelled at him for having no documents, checked him for gang tattoos, asked if he was religious. He told them that they could call his mother, who lived in New York. (She had been forced to leave Juan with her parents and flee the country years earlier, after being kidnapped for 10 days by guerrillas and later terrorized by the gangs.) The agent said, "I don't want to call her; I want to see your papers!"
Juan spent six weeks in various processing facilities, including in McAllen, where he was packed into a cell (nicknamed "the freezers" because they were kept so frigid and there weren't enough blankets) with about 60 other kids, and later in Nogales, where they had mattresses, at least. In McAllen, the guard taunted the boys each morning by saying, "Good morning, ladies." "I don't understand English," Juan says, "but I got that."
In a modest Queens apartment, reunited with a family he hasn't seen in years, Juan seems slightly shellshocked but also overcome with relief. He'll start high school in the fall, and he's getting legal representation. Cases like Juan's have a better chance of working out positively, as immigration law favors the reunification of families, and his mother now has legal status in the U.S. Her youngest son, born here, speaks accentless English. The sign he made for his brother on yellow construction paper is still taped to his new bedroom door: "Welcome! Juan! Finally."