On a typically fine July afternoon in California, three buses pull into the small, parched border town of Murrieta, but don’t outstay their welcome. Awaiting their arrival is a group of protesters, ventilating placards and pent-up vitriol in the heat. “USA, USA”, they chant, “Go back home!”. Inside the buses, approximately 140 undocumented migrants – all women and children from Central America fleeing abject poverty and violence – have submitted their fates at the border patrol station in Murrieta. But it won’t be so easy: they are turned around to be driven to processing centres at least 80 miles away in San Diego and El Centro.
An influx of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Texas into the US has led to widespread hysteria amongst protesters in border towns. One republican, Phil Gingrey, in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expressed his own concern at imminent danger by writing: “Reports of illegal immigrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning. I have serious concerns that the diseases carried by these children may begin to spread too rapidly to control”.
In July, the Obama administration warned lawmakers that US border-control agencies would run out of resources and that migrant children would run out of beds if Congress did not approve $3.7bn in funds. More than 57,000 children have arrived at the southern US border since last October, trafficked into Texas from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – that’s double the number from the same period a year earlier.
Of the funds, as yet to be approved, some $1.8bn will be spent on providing care for unaccompanied children while they await detention. $116m of the $1.53bn allocated to the Department of Homeland Security will go towards paying the cost of transporting unaccompanied children back to their original countries, and a further $300m will be spent in Central America supporting border control.
As Obama’s plans continue to hinge on a decision from Congress, some Republicans have stated that the funds should be drawn from existing foreign-aid programs that assist the immigrants’ home countries.
Republicans blame Obama for previous legislation he enacted to defer deportation of some immigrants who had entered the US illegally as children, claiming this has sent the wrong message.
On the other hand Obama is also running into trouble with some in his own party for his attempts to circumvent or reverse legislation brought into law in 2008 by George W Bush; the ‘William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act’ guarantees extra legal protection to Central American immigrants. Reversing it would allow, for example, such immigrants to be returned to their countries in as little as a week.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class action lawsuit against the Obama administration’s attempt to reverse the 2008 anti-trafficking act, claiming that the government is violating the fifth amendment due process clause, as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act’s requirement of a “full and fair hearing”.
According to US Department of Justice figures, 44% of migrants appeared in court in 2012 without legal representation; few are entitled to court-appointed attorneys and most rely on pro bono lawyers or non-profit groups.
However, with over 375,000 outstanding immigration cases currently waiting to be heard by just 243 specialist judges across the US, Obama is keen to be seen to be taking action, even if he was elected on an Immigration liberalisation platform.
The influx of migrants through Texas has less to do with just economics or simple opportunism than with myriad socio-economic problems throughout Central America. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, while both El Salvador and Guatemala are riven with both extreme poverty and crime.
Central America itself functions as a stop-off point for drug smuggling between South America and the US – yielding a long history of gang violence. The problem has intensified in recent years due to turf wars fought by Mexican cartels. For many in Central America, who have witnessed friends, family or neighbours being killed on the streets, the perilous trip to the Mexican border is worth risking.
Republicans castigate Obama for his inaction, while most Democrats oppose any change to the 2008 anti-trafficking act. The President attracted further criticism when he failed to visit the border on a recent visit to Texas. He has criticised Congress for its inaction and pointed out how a bill, passed by the senate last year, but rejected by the House, would have added an extra 20,000 border patrol agents.
The solution seems to comprise four elements: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an easier legal immigration system, better enforcement and more border security. But as usual in the US, stasis is the fruit of partisanship as a visceral xenophobia substitutes for ideology or clarity of purpose. •