Tens of thousands of children, mostly Central Americans unaccompanied by adults, have been caught crossing the U.S. border illegally since October. They are fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries in a desperate search for a better life, and there has been a single publicly documented case identifying 16 teens as gang members. Yet too many Republican members of Congress such as Rep. Rich Nugent of Spring Hill are spreading fears of gangs and criminals flooding across the border. They are recklessly inflaming emotions as they demand more fences and border security rather than broader solutions to a humanitarian crisis.
Nugent turned up the false rhetoric last week by stating that "a lot'' of the detained children are gang members raised in a criminal culture. The website Buzzfeed first reported that he said on an Ocala radio station that "a lot of these children, quote-unquote, you know the first caller mentioned it — they're gang members, they're gang-affiliated.
"Listen, if you're 14, 15, 16, 17 years old and you're coming from a country that's gang-infested, particularly with MS-13-types. That is the most aggressive of all the street gangs. When you have those types coming across the border, they're not children at that point. These kids have been brought up in a culture of thievery. A culture of murder, of rape, all those types of things. And now we are going to infuse them into the American culture, it's just ludicrous."
The inflammatory and irresponsible commentary does nothing to effectively address an escalating immigration and humanitarian crisis as children flee poverty and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras only to be apprehended in Texas and Arizona as they try to enter the United States. Under a 2008 federal antitrafficking law, minors from Central America, unlike those from Mexico and Canada, cannot be deported immediately and must be given a court hearing before they are deported. The flood of children has strained shelter resources and brought a call from President Barack Obama to authorize $3.7 billion in emergency spending to bolster border security, accelerate deportations and aid in humanitarian efforts. That's what Congress should focus on, not on inflaming emotions with inaccurate information and fueling inhumane demands like turning every one of these children back at the border without an appropriate hearing.
In a later interview with CNN, Nugent wisely retreated from his inaccurate proclamation. He acknowledged just a small percentage of the detainees likely are gang members, that he knew of no other instances beyond the 16 teens identified in an Arizona placement center, and that much of the gang data is classified information to which he does not have access.
In contrast to the loud, foot-in-mouth political partisanship inside the Beltway, consider the quiet, feet-on-the-ground approach in west Pasco County, where a highly regarded charity is seeking permission to double the number of immigrant children it can help in Holiday. There, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services is quietly sheltering up to 16 children between the ages of 8 and 18 under a federal refugee resettlement program. The agency, seeking county permission to double the number of shelter beds to 32, is assisting children with no criminal record who were smuggled or trafficked into the country. It is a worthwhile humanitarian effort with the goal of reuniting undocumented immigrant children with relatives.
This is a humanitarian crisis that demands quick but thoughtful action from Congress before an August recess. Reckless claims that spread false information don't help, and Nugent knows better.