The flood of children crossing the border from Mexico is being blamed on President Barack Obama’s lenient policy toward child immigrants. Deportation of children has fallen in recent years, and young adult immigrants who came to the United States as children have also benefited from the decision not to seek their deportation.
In response, Obama is seeking $4 billion in extra money for border enforcement. It has been his strategy all along: Maintain tough enforcement along the border in the hope of persuading Republicans of going along with immigration reform. It hasn’t worked. He has carried out high levels of apprehensions and deportations, and, despite it all, Republicans have continued to obstruct reform.
It is possible that word about Obama’s lenient policy toward child immigrants has seeped down to the villages of Guatemala and El Salvador, persuading young people and their families that the trip north is worth the risk. But what’s happening at the border is nothing new, and it is not unique to the United States and Mexico. And it is going to continue to happen — at the Mexican border as it is happening on the waters of the Mediterranean — as long as the world is riven by gaping economic inequality.
Vermont is host to some number of illegal immigrants, and it is no great crisis. No one knows the number for sure, but something like 1,500 immigrants are here to work on Vermont’s dairy farms. Farmers say they try to hire local workers, but often are unable to maintain a steady workforce of Vermonters willing to work the long hours required on a dairy farm. It is the immigrant workforce, like striving immigrants for generations before, who display the eagerness to work and the ambition required to make sure the herds are milked and the consumers of Boston and elsewhere have milk to drink and ice cream to eat on these hot summer days.
Many of the workers in Vermont are here without proper documentation, but Vermont has established a policy of not hassling them. That doesn’t protect them from federal immigration officials, so they always live in fear that they will be picked up. They are also inhibited from becoming full members of the community, taking part in public life or standing up for their own rights. Thus, as with immigrants all across the country, they occupy a second-class status, which is fine with employers who value pliability but not so fine for the workers themselves.
That children are coming by the thousands is an indication of the desperation existing in many parts of Central America, where gang violence and lack of job opportunities have persuaded people with initiative to risk the journey north. For the same reason, Africans by the thousands have braved the waters of the Mediterranean, seeking to make landfall in Italy or Spain or Greece. Naval patrols, walls or border guards are not going to change the situation in Europe or the United States. Europeans and Americans ought to put themselves in the shoes of impoverished villagers from the south and ask themselves whether, in the same position, they wouldn’t take the chance of migration. For most Americans, their ancestors did.
Certainly, a dangerous trek across the desert is not something we should encourage youngsters from Central America or Mexico to make, and getting control of the flood of new immigration will be necessary. But a longer-lasting solution is to find ways to facilitate a regular flow that employers can depend on and families can trust in so opportunity is there for some of those south of the border yearning to breathe free. Gringos grumpy about the influx ought to ask themselves whether they are interested in cleaning the toilets or picking the lettuce or carrying out the other menial jobs that immigrants are happy to do. Next time they make a salad with lettuce from California or tomatoes from Florida, Americans enjoying the benefits secured by the immigration of their own ancestors ought to be willing to thank an immigrant and think about making him or her a citizen.
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