There have been some recent stirrings of reasonableness in Washington over the humanitarian crisis at the Mexican border, stirrings that should be supported and nurtured like, well, a child. But let's not fool ourselves: The proposals being bandied about address current political and bureaucratic problems, but they will do little to resolve the instability and violence propelling tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors out of Central America.
Street gangs, drug cartels, ineffectual local government and corruption have destabilized neighborhoods and cities in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. That has prompted an exodus of children headed (mostly) for the United States. Under the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which was designed to combat sexual trafficking and labor exploitation of children, border agents must within 72 hours send unaccompanied minors (from all but Mexico and Canada) to the Department of Health and Human Services for care while immigration courts determine whether they have sufficient cause to remain in the country.
That system is swamped. Kids are being released to the custody of relatives or social agencies pending court hearings, leading to rumors that they can get permisos — permits — to stay. The Obama administration wants Congress to give it the leeway to send the minors back much more quickly, a proposal opposed by immigrant rights advocates.
Now, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, have introduced what they're calling the HUMANE Act. The bill would add 40 immigration judges, as the Obama administration has requested, which would come on top of the 35 immigration judges that the White House's 2015 budget proposes to add. The bill also would require a hearing for each unaccompanied minor within seven days, followed by a ruling within the next three days, on whether he or she can make a prima facie case to stay under the immigration law's complicated criteria. Those who lose their bids would be immediately repatriated; those deserving a full hearing would be released to the custody of a sponsor while the process unfolds.
The bill, as it has been described, deserves consideration. But those who work with the minors harbor no illusions — and neither should we — that returning these children more quickly to violent communities will stop them all from trying again to reach the U.S. border. More likely, it will drive some of them further underground, and they will come north along riskier routes. In many cases, they are running from mortal danger, and measured against that fear, a dangerous trip for the chance at a future is a rational choice.
That this emergency is rooted in criminal violence, rather than war or political or religious terrorism, does not make it any less a humanitarian crisis. And the solution will not be found in an immigration courtroom, or along the banks of the Rio Grande.