Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Border detention of children shames America

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 2:48 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Detention of children from Central America at border is beneath U.S.
  • He says immigration officials keep them in inhumane conditions or bus them to Arizona
  • Navarrette: Nativists are wrong to say it's part of an Obama amnesty plan
  • He says U.S. has a right to protect its borders, but this is unconscionable

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Diego, Calif. (CNN) -- Where did our country go? Americans are known around the world as a good and compassionate people -- with a soft spot for children.

And, although you wouldn't know it from watching a ghastly detention drama currently playing out in the Southwest, law enforcement and the legal system have built-in safeguards that acknowledge the simple fact that children are different from adults, and thus cannot be treated the same.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement seem to have forgotten that. These agencies are currently warehousing hundreds of children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who have, in recent months, streamed across the Texas-Mexico border.

According to media reports, the group is a mixture of unaccompanied minors sent by their parents, toddlers traveling with their mothers, and children who are alone and trying to reunite with their parents in the United States.

These youngsters are a long way from home and many appear to have gotten this far by jumping aboard passenger trains that run from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the northern cities of Mexico, and then joining up with "coyotes" (smugglers) who brought them across or, in some cases, merely pointed the way.

Once they arrived, they were taken into custody by U.S. immigration officials. According to immigration attorneys who represent some of these children, many are being held in freezing holding cells intended for fewer inhabitants and shorter stays. These aren't jail cells as much as temporary holding rooms nicknamed "hieleras," or ice chests. CNN has reported that the border facilities lack "enough food, beds or sanitary facilities to provide for the children."

These are the lucky ones. Federal immigration officials have loaded hundreds of others on buses and transported them across state lines, only to drop them at bus stations in states like Arizona with nothing more than a notice to appear before an immigration judge -- a scribbled piece of paper representing a feeble attempt at accountability, which most of these people are likely to ignore as they wander off and fade into society.

President Barack Obama called it "an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response." And Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his department other agencies would work together to ensure a "rapid government-wide response in the short-term and to undertake broader, longer-term reforms to address the root cause behind these recent migration trends."

Anyone still think the border is -- as President Barack Obama and other administration officials have repeatedly assured us -- more secure than it ever has been?

It's a mess. U.S. officials don't have the faintest idea of what to do with the influx, even though they had advanced warning that this crisis was coming.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry told radio host Sean Hannity this week that public safety officials in his state had informed the federal government about a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border as early as 2012. The Department of Homeland Security appears to have not adequately addressed the problem. And now, with more than 1,000 children coming across the border every day according to government reports, it must.

Why are they coming? They're fleeing countries like those in Central America that are quite literally falling apart, with little or failed infrastructure in the military or law enforcement, and thus unable to fend off encroachment by Mexican drug cartels looking for new outposts from which to operate.

That is the best theory about why the surge is occurring.

The most far-fetched theory comes from restrictionists and nativists who insist that what enticed these children from Central America to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is an expectation that Obama is poised to use his executive power to grant a kind of "amnesty" to millions of undocumented.

If people in Central America believe that, they could be the only folks in this hemisphere who do.

Obama has never been particularly interested in proposing an immigration reform plan to Congress. And he has spent the last few years resisting calls to use executive power to act unilaterally to stop deportations.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had taken just about every position one can take on the immigration issue, but recently said he would work with Obama to allow undocumented young people to stay in the United States. Now that has been defeated in the primary election by a conservative in his home district in Virginia, immigration reform is all but dead.

Besides, from all appearances, the border kids aren't immigrants. They're refugees. They're here because they couldn't be anywhere else, and they had no choice but to come. We're supposed to take in people like this, and offer them safe haven.

This country has a right to protect its borders, and to decide who enters and who doesn't. But once our officials apprehend and take custody of a group of people -- let alone a group of children -- they're responsible to do right by them. That isn't happening in the Southwest.

We have standards, and procedures, and hoops to jump through for those who might claim refugee status. We don't just drop human beings at a bus station, and run in the other direction. There are nations that would handle a situation like this in such a cowardly manner. This isn't one of them.

So where did our country go? And how do we get it back?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT