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 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT