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The Child Immigration Crisis: Immigrants or Refugees?

Caroline King

Illegal immigrants waste our money, deplete our system, spread disease and crime — these were all accusations made earlier this summer against three buses full of undocumented child immigrants from Central America in Murrieta, California. Holding signs that read “Return to Sender” and “Illegals Out,” protestors blocked the roadway to the border processing station in Murrieta, forcing buses to turn around and head toward a different processing facility in San Diego.

While reading about the Murrieta protest in the Washington Post, I had to remind myself several times throughout the article that protestors were not demonstrating against a plague, alien invasion or other natural or supernatural disaster, but against children — against refugees. Similar protests have engulfed states along the U.S. Mexico border as the U.S. faces its newest immigration dispute, and what Obama himself has come to call a “humanitarian crisis” — the recent influx of child immigration. Over 52,000 unaccompanied minors, the majority from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, have made their way to the United States border since October, most to escape persecution.


It’s no secret that illegal immigration has been a point of contention for some time in our country, since it began almost 135 years ago to be exact, but this recent development is not about immigration — it is about displacement. According to Merriam Webster, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster, while an immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. These Central American children are not coming alone because they want to; they are coming because they have to.

According to Leslie Velez, senior protection officer at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, in an interview with the National Journal, the sharp rise in immigration from Central America is indicative of a situation that surpasses immigration. Unlike others who have come before, seeking economic opportunities in the United States, these immigrants are migrating to escape life-threatening situations.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have some of the highest crime rates in the western hemisphere. According to Dara Lind, contributor to, more people are likely to die in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala right now than were expected to die in combat in Iraq in 2007, and have recently experienced an influx of gang violence. Many of these gangs are targeting children and teens to recruit, threatening to kill recruits and their families if they refuse to join. In response, many children and teens are forced to flee these countries. This reality is reflected in an interview conducted by the U.N. High Commissioner earlier this year, in which 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed indicated that they were “forcibly displaced.”

Finally, the fact that children and families from these countries are not only fleeing to the United States, but to neighboring countries, some of which, as is the case with Nicaragua, are poorer than their own, reinforce the idea that this mass migration is not about economic opportunity; it is about survival. According to the National Journal, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize are also countries of choice for Central American refugees, though they primarily travel to Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States.

Regardless of their status as immigrants or refugees, the essential question remains the same: do they stay or do they go? Because of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 passed by the Bush Administration, the United States is required to offer a hearing in immigration court to any person coming to the United States — with or without papers — fearing persecution in their home country to determine whether or not they are eligible for legal refugee status in the U.S.

As for children who travel unaccompanied who come from non-contiguous countries (as in the case of Central American immigrants), this act ensures that they have enhanced legal protections. Bush signed this into law when there were only 6,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied child immigrants per year instead of 52,000, which is partially why it’s difficult to expedite the cases and why the system is so overloaded. As for the politics in a nutshell, the boys on Capitol Hill are still hashing it out; the Republican Party would rewrite the existing laws in order to have a mass deportation, while Obama is proposing a $4 billion bailout to essentially take care of the children who are here now and strengthen the border.

It is difficult to devise an answer with an issue as complex as this one, but as a situation that involves refugees, we need a solution that addresses refugees. This is not about immigrants taking our jobs or raising our taxes, this is about a national responsibility to assist those claiming asylum with what resources we have — a responsibility that we voted into law in 2008, regardless of whether not it was convenient.

Collegian Columnist Caroline King can be reached at

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