The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 provided a clause so that the United States did not have to treat Mexican children as asylum seekers. Instead, it allows border control agents to subject Mexican children to a screening interview. If they do not convince the agent that they are victims of trafficking or have a legitimate claim to asylum, they are sent back. President Obama proposed expediting the process by amendingWilberforce Act, but backed away after criticism. The Republicans drafted, but abandoned HR 5230 which explicitly called for an amendment to the Wilberforce Act to allow the United States to negotiate with countries for the return of minors.
Political philosophers have written a fair bit on immigration (e.g., Matthew Gibney, The Ethics and Politics of Asylum), but the debate has tended to remain at the level of general questions about states’ obligations to asylum seekers and refugees or about questions of how refugees should be defined. There needs to be more work on the administrative and legal processes for assessing cases and treating people – in this case, children.
If we are concerned about how to ethically treat children arriving in the United States, we should reject giving immigration officials more power to determining whether children are allowed to claim asylum. When thinking about this issue, we need to keep in mind that the failure to give children access to a fair hearing may result in their murder or enslavement.
There are a number of reasons for why the worst case scenario for the children may occur:
1) Central America is an extremely dangerous place for many children with many of them forced into joining gangs. Leslie Velez, senior protection officer at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, says, “We liken the situation very much to the situation of the recruitment of child soldiers on other continents. Children are particularly vulnerable, they are susceptible to harm, they are easily terrorized, and the very fact that they are children is the single factor in the harm that they are experiencing. They are specifically being target to be recruited.”
2) Border patrol agents usually do not have the qualifications to determine whether children have a legitimate claim to asylum. (Here are the requirements to become a Border Patrol Agent: Border Patrol Agent Application Process)
3) Even if border patrol agents were qualified, a single interview is usually not enough time to determine if a claim is legitimate. This is particularly true if the children are traumatized, have been threatened by trafficker, do not trust the official, or simply have difficulty communicating.
4) Giving immigration official so much power is dangerous because of the lack of checks and balances. Even under the best situations, officials make mistakes that can have horrific consequences. Vox has reported how the expedited deportation of Mexican children has led to them being shipped back to their traffickers. Expedited processes will sometimes end with dead children.
What about the counter arguments?
After a meeting with the Presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, President Obama said that “we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at great risk and families who are putting their children at great risk.”
President Obama suggests that it is the United States’ failure to have strict enough policies that leads the children to leave their homes. What would lead children to make the potentially deadly journey from Central America, across Mexico, to the United States? This seems unwarranted. Refugees may come to the United States because they believe they will be allowed to stay, but this isn’t the reason they leave their country. Asylum seekers fear for their lives.
If the United States makes it clear that it will deport most children asylum-seekers after an interview with a border guard, fewer will come, but at a moral cost: people who have a moral claim to asylum in the US will not receive it. (In recent decades, the developed world’s refugee policy has largely been an effort to prevent people from making asylum claims through carrier sanctions and other measures. This places cost and efficiency over justice.)
Another argument takes this form: “I think, you know, we have to be humanitarian, but at the same time let them know that if they do come, they cannot stay here,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Otherwise, we’ll never stop the flow.” (LA Times, Obama’s bid to deport children complicates immigration reform effort)
First, why can’t the children stay here? There are currently 313 million people living in the United States. The number of unaccompanied minors is currently quite small:
It’s not a case that unaccompanied minors cannot stay here. Rather, it’s that some people do not want them to stay here. If they are refugees and if we wish to act ethically, they should be allowed to stay. Though there are short term challenges in dealing with an influx of asylum seekers, the United States can and is able to afford give them due process.
What about the slippery slope argument Rep. McCaul seems to suggest: if children know they can receive asylum in the US, then this will lead more and more children to make the journey and “we’ll never stop the flow”?
We should ask for evidence. We should keep in mind when debating immigration that most people do not want to leave their country where they have their family, friends, and communities and where they are fluent in the language and cultural norms. Almost everyone who leaves has a good reason to do so. If the root cause of immigration is violence, then decreasing violence will decrease immigration.