Thousands of minors from Central America crossing the Southwest border and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents have led many people to blame human smuggling cartels and misinformation about U.S. policies on unaccompanied minors.
However, those are only symptoms of the problem. By adopting the right policies years ago the United States could have prevented the current situation at the border.
The primary problem is America still does not possess a means for individuals to fill lower-skilled jobs with legal visas in year-round industries like construction, landscaping, hotels and restaurants. The arrival of child migrants at the border is one manifestation of the lack of economic-based visas.
Parents who first came to the country to work have found that increased border security and dangerous terrain means after making it to the United States it is not advisable to travel back and forth, as people did many years ago. Having established economic footholds superior to those in their home countries many have sent for their children to join them, with gangs and other violence, including the abuse of girls, an additional important push factor driving young people from Central America.
If parents could work in the United States legally and travel back and forth to Central America the current situation likely would never have happened. That is because if parents could travel freely they would have gone home to help their children or been able to petition for them legally if the legal visa category permitted dependents or the number of employment-based green cards for lower-skilled workers was set at a more realistic level than the current 5,000 per year.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has blamed the cartels for spreading misinformation to drum up business. However, the only reason the cartels are in a position to profit from human smuggling is legal avenues are shut off to those who want to work legally in the United States at lower-skilled jobs, and also closed to their family members. Nobody makes money smuggling scientists with Ph.D.s into America because at least there are plausible, if imperfect, categories for highly educated workers.
Three policy actions would help address the current situation at the Southwest border and place the United States in a better position to prevent illegal immigration in the future. First, the administration must obey the law. Following the law will likely result in unaccompanied minors with meritorious cases being allowed to stay legally. That includes those who qualify for special juvenile immigrant status, which includes children abused, abandoned or neglected.
Minors may also qualify for asylum, for example, if they are being targeted by gangs or drug cartels, or other forces that their country’s government cannot or will not control, or for other reasons that qualify for refugee protection. (Victims of human trafficking are eligible for a separate form of protection.) Those without valid grounds to stay would be returned to their home countries. Adequate funding for immigration proceedings would allow for expeditious decisions on cases.
Second, Congress needs to pass legislation to authorize legal visas for work in the United States at jobs that are year-round and do not require a high school degree, particularly in sectors where many unauthorized immigrants now work. The ability to travel back and forth freely to Central America could prevent the future illegal entry of unaccompanied minors or families, while some form of legalization as part of a political compromise on work visas or enforcement could also allow family members to be reunited through legal means.