Migrant Children from the “Northern Triangle”: Refugees or Illegal Immigrants?

There are currently two countries that border each other and share a humanitarian crisis. According to 2009-2012 data from the United Nations, these countries are ranked #1 and #2 for most murders per capita out of 80 countries total. Children are being recruited into violent gang activity, resulting in an international crisis.

This isn’t a reference to Iraq and Syria, however. These two countries are much closer to the United States: El Salvador and Honduras. Together with Guatemala, they comprise the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central American states that have seen an influx of child emigrants headed to the American border. This issue has recently become a political football in the United States, with the question of what to do with the children in dispute.

Much of the hubbub is attributed to a 2008 law signed by President Bush that allows these children to remain in the United States under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services until a “suitable family member” can be found. A lack of adequate facilities for these children and courts to hear immigration cases that are required by the law have resulted in efforts by Washington to throw money at the problem. However, Republicans and Democrats have failed to come together even within their own parties in the House and Senate respectively, to determine how funding should be allocated.

What many in America don’t understand, from Washington elites down to the street protestors that blocked a convoy of migrants in Southern California, is that these children should be viewed as refugees who are escaping violence and gangs, not simply illegal immigrants who are cutting to the front of the line at the expense of those who followed legal channels to come here. The cumbersome bureaucracy known as the American immigration system not only prevents many people who are hardworking and have the ability to contribute to the American economy from immigrating, but it also prevents children who are most vulnerable to forced recruitment from drug gangs from seeking refuge.

The United States government can take a leading role in solving this problem to ensure that liberty is strengthened both in America and internationally without violating the sovereignty of foreign nations. To do so, it has to tackle two mutually reinforcing issues: the first being the obvious one, the broken immigration system, but also a second issue, the drug war. Reforming our drug policies in addition to allowing those who are facing oppression throughout Latin America to seek refuge in the United States would be a huge step towards improving the lives of those suffering from chronic violence at the hands of ruthless drug cartels.

Immigration reform should make the process much simpler: anyone who has not committed a serious crime and possesses a skill set that is in demand in the American labor force (of which there are many) should be allowed to quickly become a U.S. citizen. While many will charge that this policy would depress wages, especially at the lower income brackets, immigrants as a collective are not and will not be much different than the average American citizen with regards to income or skills. Furthermore, by filling gaps in our labor force, the United States would enjoy lower prices on many goods and services and expand its tax base. It is a win/win solution for both immigrants and current American citizens.

The United States government has the ability to do a great deal of good for both its citizens and for a large portion of the population living elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Whether they enact meaningful reform or continue spinning their wheels in the mire of single-digit approval ratings remains to be seen.

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