Children Crossing Borders

Stephen H. Unger
July 30, 2014

Few images tug at our heartstrings more than those of sleeping children. Such pictures have been prominent in illustrating newspaper stories about the surge of children across our southern border. The stories themselves generally appeal to our parental instincts. There is talk about the hazardous journeys of those children, desperately fleeing from frightening conditions in Central America.

How barbaric it would be, any humane person might conclude from the stories, to send them back to a place such as Tegucigalpa. So, goes this argument, every effort should be made to unite them with their parents who left them behind when they illegally came to the US, or to find other people here to care for them.

But it is important to look at the situation more carefully, considering the well-being of others besides the young sleepers, and to think more about what is really in the best interest of children such as these. For the most part, the impression given by conventional news media is that the US government is trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation. Is that really so?

What precipitated the surge?

The principal countries of origin, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, would not rank high in a list of the happiest nations. Most of the people there are very poor. All three countries have been dangerous for decades with violence levels varying, but high. Cocaine plays an important role. But, until late in 2013, there had never been any significant exodus of children from these countries heading for the US. What changed [1]?

President Obama, without consulting congress, issued an executive order in June, 2012, to the effect that those who came to the United States illegally before age 16, would no longer be subject to deportation [2]. Over 800,000 people were in this category. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano followed up by announcing that work permits would be given to many young illegal immigrants [3]. This clear message was obviously received by people all over the world as an invitation to come here. The number of children caught every month crossing our southern border illegally has risen recently to over 10,000.

In a sense, mixed signals are being sent in that, every day, many illegal immigrants, often with criminal records, are deported. But many other illegal immigrants are encouraged to remain by admitting them to colleges, allowing them to get drivers licenses, doing little or nothing to stop employers from hiring them, and, in general, not trying very hard to catch and deport them [4], or even to find them. Local police, are, in most places, discouraged, or even prohibited, from stopping and questioning people who seem likely to be illegal immigrants.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said, (Apr 27, 2014) "...we need to encourage the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country to come out of the shadows, become accountable and get on an earned path to citizenship." [5]. As of May 2014, over 560,000 young illegals had been shielded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, [6], which has recently been renewed.

Clearly, the change that precipitated the exodus was the news indicating that the US government is permitting large numbers of children who came here illegally to remain. This encouraged parents in poor countries to try to come here with their children, or to send their children here. There are also some teenagers who are deciding on their own to make the trip. The 1986 amnesty for almost 3 million illegals led to a great increase in illegal immigration, and all the current talk, proposed legislation, and executive actions, especially with regard to children, has made it reasonable to assume that, if they come, the likelihood is that, one way or another, they will be allowed to remain.

This has created a demand for the services of people who can facilitate the necessary travel and border crossing. Many drug-smugglers are finding people-smuggling to be a lucrative sideline. Depending on where the trip begins, charges range from a few thousand dollars to perhaps $7000 per person from Central America. From China, the charge may be as high as $40,000 [7].

Incidentally there is some doubt that fear of violence is the main force driving children to the US. There is evidence that the major motivation is the prospect of getting a good job [8].

Is migration an appropriate solution

Front-page stories in the NY Times tell us about traumatic experiences of specific children from Honduras coming to the US via Mexico [9]. The stories, with pictures, carry the message that the decent thing to do is to welcome these children to the US, uniting them with parents if they are already here (legally or illegally). Presumably, if the parents are not already here, they should be invited to come so that families can be re-united.

Billions of people, all over the world, are leading miserable lives. Many often go hungry, lack adequate shelter, and are victims of intimidation and violence. Any one of them would most likely be better off in the US. But focussing on heart rendering cases of individuals, especially children, while ignoring the bigger picture, can lead to very bad decision making.

This attitude is sending a clear message to people in the Americas, and elsewhere in the world, that our doors are wide open. Indeed a message to this effect has already been received and is the basis for the flood of illegal immigrants now pouring into the country. While the main source of illegal immigrants was originally Mexico, it has shifted to certain Central American countries, and increasing numbers are now coming from elsewhere, mainly Asia.

The population of the US could easily be doubled by such an influx without making a dent in the number of needy people all over the world. It should be obvious that the problems of oppressed people all over the world can't be solved by inviting them to move to the US. The consequences of such an inflow would be devastating to most Americans. The first victims would be those in the lowest income brackets, but the effects would be severe for all but the wealthy [10].

Advocates of opening our borders seem to ignore the fact that Americans are by no means immune to oppressive conditions. Many millions of Americans live in poverty, and are often menaced or attacked by hoodlums. E.g., the murder rate in Camden, NJ exceeds that of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The kind-hearted people moved by the plight of the children now coming here seem to be forgetting about American children suffering in similar ways. More important, they do not seem to realize that opening our borders to large numbers of poor people from other countries is directly worsening the situation of poor Americans. The detrimental effects of immigration on black people in particular, has been pointed out by several members of The United States Commission on Civil Rights [11].

This is happening in several ways.

  • The newcomers, escaping from deep poverty, take jobs at pay rates, and under conditions, well below ordinary US standards, thus displacing poor Americans from many jobs [12].
  • Even if Americans can get the kinds of jobs being taken by the immigrants, they must accept the same miserable conditions.
  • Public and private money being spent to assist the newcomers in various ways is money not available to help poor Americans.

    Bringing in large numbers of poor people inevitably burdens tax payers with all kinds of costs, such as welfare payments, school and health-care costs, and costs associated with the justice system. This influx is playing an important role in the process whereby American workers have been rendered virtually powerless in negotiating for proper wages and working conditions. The principal beneficiaries are the owners of such enterprises as factory farms, big hotels, and meat-packing plants, whose profits are swelled by reduced labor costs.

    What is our government doing about this problem?

    Rather than beefing up programs to deal with the growing problems of impoverished Americans, and taking strong action to stop the illegal immigration that contributes to those problems, the Obama administration is calling for several billion dollars in appropriations to help youngsters who are coming here illegally. An indication of that approach is an ad, placed this past January by the Department of Homeland Security, soliciting responses from companies interested in providing, "Escort Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children" (UAC) [13]. The ad states that "There will be approximately 65000 UAC". Note that this ad was placed well before the extent of the inflow was evident. So the government cannot claim that the UAC surge was a big surprise.

    Many illegals are being caught and deported, but they often come back, and many others are not caught. Once past the vicinity of the border, there is no serious effort to apprehend them. We can only guess at the number who get into the country without being caught. Those apprehended are often quickly released and told to report to some court at a later date [14]. It is not publicly known how many people are processed this way, and, of these, how many actually do show up in court.

    What should be done?

    The simplest way to shut down illegal immigration is to ensure that illegal immigrants can't get jobs here. Requiring proof of legal status at hiring time is an obvious way to accomplish this. Employers, particularly big companies, such as poultry processing plants, violating such laws should be severely penalized.

    Mexico plays a special role in this problem, since the great majority of people entering the US illegally come thru Mexico. Those from Central America have to cross Mexico's Southern border, travel at least a thousand miles in Mexico, and then exit via its Northern border. So Mexico has ample opportunity to to intercept them. Its efforts to date along these lines have been grossly inadequate. The greatest single contingent of people illegally crossing into the US from Mexico consists of Mexicans.

    The US is the world's most powerful nation, both economically, and militarily. It routinely bullies nations such as France, Germany, Sweden, and, of course, all the nations in the Western Hemisphere. The idea that the US can't get Mexico to shut off the huge flow of people, including children, flowing over its northern border into the US is not credible.

    Why not simply return to Mexico all captured illegals who had crossed the Mexican-US border, charging transportation costs to Mexico, and insist that those who are not Mexican be returned to their countries of origin? It would be appropriate to penalize repeat offenders. In order to expedite this process, the 2008 law that requires full court hearings before deporting a person to a country other than Mexico or Canada must be revised to allow prompt action in all but exceptional cases [15].

    Helping a small fraction of the world's poor at the expense of poor Americans (and for the benefit of rich Americans) may make some people who haven't considered the issue carefully feel good. But we could do much better. First, we could stop supporting governments that oppress their citizens [16]. Then, rather than sending arms to bolster autocratic governments, the US could develop constructive foreign aid programs to help poor people directly in their own countries.

    Note-1 (added 11/10/15): A translation, by Anastasia Benesh, of this essay into Russian can be found [here]

    Note-2 (added 4/19/19): A translation, by Philipp Egger, of this essay into German can be found [here]


    [1] Sharyl Attkisson, "The Big Unanswered Questions about the Child Illegal Immigrants", July 6, 2014

    [2] Julia Preston, John H. Cushman Jr., "Obama to Permit Young Migrants to Remain in U.S.", NY Times, June 15, 2012

    [3] Madison Gray, "U.S. Government to Allow Unauthorized Immigrant 'Dreamers' to Remain in Country", Time, June 15, 2012

    [4] Judson Berger, "ICE, Border Patrol unions claim illegal immigrants exploiting 'dreamer' policy", Fox News, July 27, 2012

    [5] Pierre Thomas, "DHS Head: Changes To Immigration Enforcement Potentially Coming 'Pretty Soon'", ABC News, Apr 27, 2014

    [6] Patrick Taurel, "The DACA Renewal Process: Everything You Need to Know", Immigration Impact, June 5, 2014

    [7] ABC News, "People Smugglers' Whisk Illegal Aliens Into U.S.", ABC News, 5/1/14

    [8] , Channel 5 News"Honduran Journalist Sheds Light into Migration Crisis", Channel 5 News, Jul 24, 2014

    [9] Julia Preston,"Rush to Deport Young Migrants Could Trample Asylum Claims", NY Times, July 19, 2014

    [10] Stephen H. Unger, "The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side", Ends and Means, October 19, 2011

    [11] John Hinderaker, "Civil Rights Commissioners to Black Caucus: Why Are You Selling Out African-Americans?", Powerline, April 11, 2013

    [12] Karen Zeigler, Steven A. Camarota, "All Employment Growth Since 2000 Went to Immigrants: Number of U.S.-born not working grew by 17 million", The Center for Immigration Studies, June 2014

    [13] Immigration & Customs Enforcement, "Escort Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children", Department of Homeland Security, January 29, 2014

    [14] Alicia A. Caldwell, "U.S. releasing undocumented immigrants, but won't say how many", Associated Press, June 6, 2014

    [15] Charles Lane, "national immigration scandal", Washington Post, July 9, 2014

    [16] Dana Frank, "The Latin America mistake; Memo to Secretary Kerry: Stop funding the bad guys in Honduras", Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2013

    Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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