As most Oklahomans have heard and seen on the news, there are currently between 1,000 and 1,500 migrant children being housed in dormitories on Fort Sill, an Army base in southwestern Oklahoma near Lawton (among other places across the country). The vast majority are from three Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

The response by federal agencies has been swift and represents a coordinated effort between agencies with very different missions and mandates – from the U.S. Border Patrol, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Military to Health and Human Services (HHS). The children are currently being cared for by the Administration for Children and Families (a division of HHS) with the assistance of countless volunteers working on behalf of churches and charities.

These children’s entry into the U.S. and into Oklahoma has sparked a large amount of commentary and speculation about their situation. In the hopes of providing some clarity for Oklahomans interested in these developments, this post responds to some common misconceptions about who they are, why they came, and what’s being done.

Myth: They came here because of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival)

Most migrant children are coming to the U.S. because of extreme and escalating violence in their home countries. Data on civilian casualties from the United Nations show that Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were twice as deadly for civilians in 2012 than Iraq at the height of the war.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, is a temporary stay of deportation granted to those who were brought into the U.S. as children more than seven years ago.  It does not grant legal status, citizenship, or special privileges and it does not apply to those crossing the border today.  

texas-drug-cartelIt’s a moot point anyway, because the children entering the U.S. from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras qualify for a de facto stay of deportation under a different law passed over a decade ago by the Bush administration (more on that below). One researcher reported, “In only one of 400-plus interviews did a child migrant ask about the DREAM Act and immigration reform.”

According to researchers who have been studying child migration from South and Central America to the US,  “pull” factors like specific characteristics of the US that make it attractive are far less important than “push” factors – namely, the violence and economic unrest in their countries of origin.  As one teenager told a reporter, “I wasn’t really looking for the American dream…I just wanted to get far away.”  Furthermore, other countries that offer no such temporary stay of deportation as DACA – Mexico, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, and others – are seeing a substantial uptick in child refugees

Myth: The Obama administration is stalling deportation

The Obama administration has actually deported record numbers of immigrants.  It is true that the number of children being deported has reached a record low, but that’s because increasing numbers of kids are coming from countries where immediate deportations aren’t permissible under U.S. law.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008, signed by President George W. Bush, changed the policies and procedures for handling unaccompanied migrant children.  PolitiFact.com succinctly explains the changes enacted under TVPRA:

Section 235, entitled “Enhancing Efforts to Combat the Trafficking of Children,” requires humane treatment of minors crossing the border from foreign nations. It also mandates “safe and secure placements,” calling for careful consideration when placing unaccompanied minors in residences within the United States.  The law lays out one procedure for child immigrants from contiguous countries, like Mexico and Canada, and another for children from noncontiguous countries, like El Salvador or Honduras.  

Child immigrants from contiguous countries are processed for immediate return to their home country. In all other cases, the children are placed under the responsibility of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. These children are placed with family or in other residences while they await their immigration court date.

Myth: Deportation would help stop future migration

Not necessarily.  This is a refugee crisis, not an immigration wave.  If a child or family has already risked the dangerous journey to the border and have been returned to the same circumstances they were fleeing, all available evidence says they’ll flee again.  

That’s because this isn’t about voluntary migration, which has fallen to an all time low in the United States.  There are fewer undocumented immigrants here today than there were in 2007. According to Fivethirtyeight.com, “the number of undocumented immigrants remains high, but illegal immigration — the number of new undocumented workers entering the country each year — has fallen close to zero. On a net basis — people entering minus those leaving or being deported — illegal immigration was probably negative between 2007 and 2012.”  

Myth: These children made it to the US because we haven’t secured the border

Photo by David Dennis

Photo by David Dennis

On a recent visit to the Ft. Sill facility, Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine lamented, “We need to secure the border. The law requires a 100% control over the southern border. The Government Accountability Office said we only have 44% control over the southern border.”  Rep. Bridenstine’s comment is especially misleading because the children are not passing through an insecure border undetected; they are detained immediately by authorities.  If the border wasn’t secure, we wouldn’t have thousands of children in custody.

The US-Mexico border is one of the longest in the world, and much of it is uninhabitable desert.  The cost in time, money and manpower it would take to truly ‘secure’ or seal this border with staff or a physical barrier would be astronomical – $28 billion a year at least according to the Department of Justice.  This is much, much more than the cost to care for the children in our custody and reunite them with their families.

Myth: The children are a public health risk

Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Ritze has called for the children at Fort Sill to be quarantined and for the governor to declare a catastrophic health emergency. Rep. Ritze has specifically said that he is “concerned about the possibility of communicable diseases being carried by a population that does not have the same vaccination requirements as in the U.S.”

In reality, the risk of disease is wildly overstated. Despite near-“failed state” status, countries in Central America nonetheless manage higher vaccination rates than many states in the US. UNICEF reports that 93 percent of kids in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles. In Oklahoma, it’s 90.5 percent

Furthermore, many of the other diseases the kids are accused of carrying, such as lice and scabies, are characteristic of large numbers of people in close contact in confined spaces – not to particular groups or countries. In the US, for example, lice spreads in college dorms, kindergartens, and movie theaters. Even selfies can allegedly spread lice. But no one’s suggesting banning any of those, or quarantining carriers.

Myth: We can’t afford more immigrants

Caring for refugee migrant children ($3.7 billion) is certainly less expensive than sealing the border ($28 billion), not to mention that the U.S. benefits enormously from immigration.  Immigrants have been a boon to our labor force, tax base, and social and cultural life.  Think also for a moment about the human cost of turning away refugees at the border.  These children are fleeing life-threatening violence, and turning them away may well result in their deaths.

What happens next?

It depends. Some of the children undoubtedly should qualify for asylum, but deportation rates for children vary tremendously depending on whether the child has a lawyer . The ACLU is currently suing the federal government for its failure to provide the children with adequate legal representation. Immigration courts are hugely understaffed, with a backlog of about two years, and Congress has thus far denied President Obama’s request for more funding to reduce the backlog.

For the moment, the children at Fort Sill appear to be happy, well-cared for, and healthy. Nevertheless, Gov. Fallin has launched an online petition on her campaign website calling for the closure of the Ft. Sill facility and all federal sites set up to temporarily house migrant children.

A bipartisan push to amend TVPRA and allow Central American migrant children to be deported by the same rules as Mexican children is gaining traction in Washington and has President Obama’s support. Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that the current deportation process for Mexican children is failing to protect the children from harm — and the violence and unrest in Central America is substantially worse than the danger in Mexico.