SAN DIEGO — I can’t decide which constitutes the bigger mess: the humanitarian crisis on the Texas-Mexico border, where tens of thousands of children are streaming into the United States from Central America at the rate of more than 1,000 per day, or the political crisis caused by Americans on both sides of the immigration debate who have tried to exploit this tragic story of human suffering to advance their agendas. 

I don’t know what it is about the story of the “border kids” that has captivated the East Coast media in Washington and New York. It’s everywhere—in print, online, radio, television. I’ve spent the last five years trying to get my colleagues interested in another immigration story involving children—the tens of thousands of U.S.-born children who have been dumped into the U.S. foster care system after their parents were deported by the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. I’ve never had this kind of response. 

It could be the sheer numbers. According to published reports, U.S. immigration officials estimate that in just the last eight months, 47,000 children have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 75 percent of them are coming from just three countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And more are on the way in a migration likely to continue for months. 

Or it could be the fact that these children are what immigration officials call “OTM’s” (Other Than Mexicans). We’ve become accustomed to the nearly constant trickle of Mexican laborers coming across the border to clean our homes, cut our lawns, or tend to our children. But this is different, because Central America is different from Mexico—with more corruption and chaos, and less infrastructure and stability. 

Or it could just be that the main reason we can’t look away from the crisis in the Southwest is that it involves children, youngsters who should be playing on a soccer field and not stowing away on top of train cars that run from one end of Mexico to the other and sneaking into the United States with the help of coyotes (smugglers) who charge $7,000 per child. 

The border kids aren’t really immigrants but more like refugees. They’re coming from impoverished places that have descended into war zones as rival street gangs battle for turf and control of the drug trade. The cartels that have, for the last several years, been devouring Mexico from the inside out have set up shop in Central America. The kids are here because they have no choice but to come here, and nowhere else to go. 

Among these refugees, you’ll find a little of everything—unaccompanied minors sent by their parents, toddlers clinging to their mothers, and children traveling alone in the hopes of reuniting with their parents in the United States. They entered through Texas, because it’s a favorite route for smugglers. From there, they intended to go off in all directions in search of the relatives and friends awaiting their arrival. 

There is even evidence—gathered through interviews of the children conducted by state and federal law-enforcement officials—that most of the children expected to be caught by immigration officers, and then released as the current policy requires when dealing with unaccompanied minors. 

However, what no one seemed to expect was that the Department of Homeland Security would be caught so unprepared by the child surge. After all, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said recently, officials in his state first started alerting their counterparts in Washington about a high number of children coming in from Central American countries back in 2012. There is no indication that the federal officials took the warning seriously, and now they’re overwhelmed and trying to triage the situation. 

They’re doing a terrible job of it. According to immigration attorneys I spoke to who are handling some of these cases, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ignoring its own rules and policies for detaining minors. The rules say that a minor can be held for only 72 hours, but now many of them are being held for several days. And what horrid days. Many are being warehoused in freezing holding cells that were intended for fewer inhabitants and shorter stays. These aren’t jail cells, as much as temporary holding rooms that have been nicknamed “hieleras,” or ice chests, by the incarcerated.

There are 30 or 40 people shoved into a room with one toilet. They’re given little food—a ham sandwich and an apple, twice a day, in one facility. They have no beds or blankets. They’re denied medical care and access to legal counsel. Those with medical conditions and prescribed medicine aren’t getting their pills. 

For the “crime” of trying to escape war and chaos and violence, these young people are being treated worse than suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

It could be worse. Hundreds of others have simply been loaded on buses and transported across state lines, only to be dropped off at bus stations in states like Arizona with nothing more than a notice to appear before an immigration judge—which most of these folks will ignore, as they wander off. 

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