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The situation of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border has grabbed state and national attention. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Control (CBP), in Fiscal Year 2021 through February, 29,792 unaccompanied children and single minors have been encountered along the Southwest Border. An additional 18,890 children were encountered by CPB in March, a 100 percent increase over February.
Children are being held in crowded conditions without proper nutrition, health care, water or sunlight. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Ashley Hinson traveled to the border and pronounced the situation as a humanitarian crisis. However, Gov. Kim Reynolds refused a request from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to receive children in need of shelter. Her position contradicts Iowa’s long history of welcoming refugees and immigrants including the years just after the Vietnam War when Iowa’s then-Gov. Robert Ray encouraged Southeast Asian refugees to move to Iowa.
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The Reynolds’ rationale for refusing shelter and care for the children is that it is “the president’s problem.” Is this really President Joe Biden’s problem?
In the short view, the early 2021 influx may be due to Biden’s reversal of Title 42, a controversial Trump administration policy put in place during the pandemic which, citing public health concerns, allowed the U.S. government to expel unaccompanied minors who came to the border without giving them a chance to seek asylum. The policy remains in place for families.
In the long view, the number of unaccompanied minors was already surging prior to the Biden administration, reaching a record high of 76,020 in 2019 under Donald Trump despite his administration's more aggressive deterrence policies. The previous record, 59,692, occurred in 2014 under the Obama Administration but the first dramatic rise occurred between October 2011 to 2013. CBP apprehensions of unaccompanied children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras surged from 4,059 in FY 2011 to 10,443 in FY 2012 and then more than doubled in 2013 to 21,537.
This jump in numbers prompted a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ascertain children's reasons for leaving their countries and their need for refugee status. The study was designed to be representative and statistically significant for policy recommendations, and analyzed the children’s responses to two questions: Why are they leaving their countries of origin? Are any of them in need of international protection?
The study found two main protection-related reasons for children leaving their countries: violence by organized armed criminal actors including drug cartels, gangs or by state actors and violence in the home. A third category, found only among the children from Mexico, was recruitment and exploitation in the criminal human smuggling industry. The central conclusion of the UNCHR study is that given the high rate of children (58 percent) who expressed actual or potential needs for protection, all unaccompanied and separated children from these four countries must be screened for international protection.
What can we do? While both the problem and solutions are complicated, the children cannot wait. They must be processed as soon as possible and reunited with their family or sponsors. Reach out to Gov. Reynolds and ask her to reverse her decision and continue Iowa’s long tradition of a welcoming and compassionate state. Remind her the benefits of accepting immigrants: they become workers, taxpayers and eventually citizens. As the poet Gabriela Mistral wrote:
“Many things we need can wait.
“The child cannot. Right now is the time; His bones are being formed, his senses are being developed. His blood is being made.
“To him, we cannot answer, ’Tomorrow,’ His name is ’Today.’”
Jane Shuttleworth is a retired educator and human rights volunteer with the Iowa Advocates of the United Nations and the Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness Action Network. She has lived and worked in Central America and has also volunteered at the U.S./Mexico Border with the Green Valley Samaritans.