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Editorial: Desperation at the border

Members of The Workplace Project, along with immigrants

Members of The Workplace Project, along with immigrants and other reform groups, rally on Friday, May 1, 2009, in Hempstead, for President Barack Obama to build a path to citizenship. Credit: NEWSDAY/Photo by Howard Schnapp

As tens of thousands of desperate children and teens from Central America surge across the border, the United States should trust the rule of law to defuse the crisis.

The 52,000 unaccompanied children caught sneaking into the country since October -- double the number from the same period a year earlier -- has federal officials scrambling to meet the need for food, shelter and care. Meanwhile, opposition to allowing them to stay here, even temporarily, has opened an ugly front in the immigration wars.

The turmoil included protesters in the southern California city of Murrieta shouting anti-immigration slogans and turning back buses carrying children and some adults to a U.S. Border Patrol station for processing in anticipation of release to relatives. They expressed a widely held view, but screaming hatred is not the face America should present to traumatized children seeking refuge.

If the influx of unaccompanied children is seen exclusively as a border security problem, then the hard-nosed response is to send them all home.

That would send a clear message to families in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the kids are coming from, that the trip north won't end with a new life in the United States. But it would violate a 2008 law, passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, that prohibits turning children back at the border.

If instead the wave of minors is seen as a humanitarian crisis, then the heart says let them all stay.

It's hard to imagine how miserable life must be to prompt families to pay smugglers thousands of dollars to take their children on such a dangerous and uncertain flight. Many of those who've arrived here said the oppressive reality of gangs, crime, rape, sex-trafficking and deadly violence -- and rumors that if they could get to the United States they would be allowed to stay -- convinced their families to risk so much.

But allow the children to stay and the 90,000 projected to illegally cross the border this year would likely swell next year and in years to come. So, what's to be done?

The administration should enforce the law, quickly and efficiently.

Authorities should flood the border region with immigration judges to conduct expedited asylum hearings. Those released to relatives to await deportation hearings should be monitored. To do that, Congress must approve the $2 billion President Barack Obama has asked for in emergency funding.

Most of the minors, however, are unlikely to win asylum. To qualify the law requires past persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Living with the threat by violence of being forced to join a gang or to sell drugs or your body, as horrible as those things are, don't qualify.

Quickly sending home those who don't make the cut would help spread the word that getting across the border doesn't mean a child will be allowed to stay. That would reduce the incentive for people to pay smugglers and risk their children's lives. But desperate people do desperate things. Despite the obvious disincentives for heading north, some will harbor hope that their child will be one of the few to beat the odds.

There needs to be a viable alternative.

The administration should make it easier for people seeking U.S. asylum to apply in their home countries. And, new higher immigration quotas should be set for those countries.

Overshadowing this crisis is the failure of our broken immigration system. Reform is dead this year in the House of Representatives, where there is implacable opposition to a path to citizenship. The crisis of unaccompanied children flooding the border shouldn't become just another flash point in that exhausting political battle in Washington. Not when thousands of children are running for their lives.