Tens of thousands of children, most of them unaccompanied by adults, are streaming across the U.S. border into Texas and Arizona, fueling a humanitarian crisis that's threatening to become Washington's partisan conflict du jour.
The vast majority of these children are arriving from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where drug wars and political upheaval are fomenting violence and feeding desperation. Frightened parents, often relying on false rumors about sanctuary, are sending their children to the United States.
With stepped up security, these young immigrants are being detained near the border — scared, hungry and in need of care. Thousands of them are filling up improvised processing centers, including one in Ventura County. When they arrive, they turn in their belongings and undergo health screenings before spending their days waiting, often sleeping on floors and seldom allowed outside.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained since October, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which estimates the number may hit 90,000 by year's end. No one knows how many more fell have fallen victim to kidnapping, sexual exploitation or even death while crossing Mexico with smugglers.
U.S. immigration law allows immediate deportation of children from Canada and Mexico if their families can be located. But those rules don't apply to these children arriving from Central America. The lucky ones have relatives in the United States who can house them during the deportation process. The others will end up in foster care, or stuck in limbo in one of the processing centers.
President Barack Obama called it an "urgent humanitarian situation" and asked Congress for $2 billion for housing, food and medical care. The administration also plans to establish a team of lawyers to expedite the deportation cases. Those are fine as first steps, but the United States, the United Nations and international aid groups also must bring pressure on the countries causing this crisis.
Unfortunately, politicking may yet again trump problem-solving in Washington.
A comprehensive immigration reform bill was a long-shot in 2014 before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election in Virginia this month. Cantor was seen by some on the right as soft on immigration, and, with the November election in sight, some Republicans see the young immigrants as a campaign issue and another argument against reform.
The Obama administration was, indeed, slow to respond to the rising numbers of youngsters detained at the border. However, without the added security demanded by Republicans, many of those now in custody may have entered the United States undetected.
It also must be noted that more than 2 million illegal immigrants have been deported since Obama took office, and none of these new arrivals are eligible to stay in the United States under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an administration initiative announced in 2012 that offers temporary residency to children brought here by their parents prior to 2007.