Esther Cepeda: Tough calls on border kids
CHICAGO -- Those who want to deport the border kids immediately and those who want to extend them protections have dug into their positions—as if either course of action would suffice.
Those in the “help” camp are resolute—to the point that pro-immigrant alliances are starting to crumble along the fine line of just how much help to extend and how much air should be sucked away from the bigger, decades-old immigration reform conundrum interrupted by the border drama.
The Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy organization Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), which since 2008 has been offering free legal representation to unaccompanied minor children navigating the U.S. immigration system, is finding itself stuck in the middle.
Last weekend, the immigration law firm Amoachi & Johnson condemned KIND for trying to send some of the children back to their home countries.
“We cannot return children back to war zones, even if they do not qualify for legal protection in the United States. We must be honest,” wrote Ala Amoachi of the New York-based law firm. “Children cannot be returned safely back to places where there is no government to protect them. … KIND should continue its great work and defend all children from harm. This means that no children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador should be deported.”
Some agree with this stance, but the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of respondents thought the legal process for dealing with Central American children should be accelerated, even if this means some children who are eligible for asylum are deported. Only 39 percent support staying with the current policy, knowing that the process could take a long time and the children would stay in the U.S. in the interim.
According to Wendy Young, KIND's president, there's no need to choose between two bad options in order to achieve a measure of order and relief at the border.
“We believe it is possible to preserve protections under current law,” Young told me. “The law is flexible enough to find solutions without rolling back or amending protections for vulnerable children and other refugees.”
Young said that KIND is working with the Obama administration and Congress to design a holistic strategy both to offer relief to children who truly do have credible claims for asylum and to stem the tide rushing to our border.
This includes helping those Central American nations in crisis to offer meaningful protection for their most vulnerable residents, providing assistance for children and families who are re-integrated into their home countries, allowing in-country processing for credible asylum claims—as is done in Haiti—and, yes, making tough choices about who stays and who goes.
“Roughly half of these children should probably be allowed to stay under a credible claim of persecution in their home country,” Young said. Even if the home country is plagued by violence and gangs, “you can establish a claim if your government is unable or unwilling to control that violence.”
“Our starting point is fundamental due process—putting a kid through a court proceeding without a lawyer is inhumane, but I do think providing these kids with a blanket right to remain in the U.S. is too simplistic.”
“We have to look at this on a case-by-case basis,” Young said. “[But ultimately] deporting the kids that don't qualify also sends the message to the home country that this isn't a slam-dunk. These families pay a lot of money to get their kids here; they know the trip is dangerous. But if they know they risk going into debt for only a 50/50 chance that they'll stay, then that makes it a different calculation.”
As with all immigration-related issues, the best solution is not a simple either-or approach. The border crisis will have to be addressed with both compassion and difficult choices.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.