Like the 19th Century orphan trains that carried abandoned and homeless children out of Eastern cities west to waiting adoptive families in America’s heartland, today’s orphan trains are ferrying tens of thousands of children up from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
And like that earlier great migration of children, these Central American children are coming out of impoverished, violence-riven communities in hopes of a better life.
But the analogy breaks down quickly beyond this point.
Most of the Central American children are not orphans at all. Typically they are children whose parents are already in the U.S., long rendered inaccessible to them by distance and their parents’ illegal status.
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The present humanitarian crisis on our border is only the most recent indication that the nation can ill afford to turn a blind eye on comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, the crisis is directly rooted in Congress’ failure to take action.
In 2008, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Humanitarian organizations working with unaccompanied minors considered it a victory because it directed the Border Patrol to transfer immigrant children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement if they came from countries whose borders were not contiguous with the United States.
The vast majority of these children were released into the care of a parent, relative or family friend while they awaited their legal proceedings, whereas unaccompanied children from Mexico (Canada has never been a factor) were typically deported immediately.
The orphan trains from Central America are carrying children whose families have become aware of this provision.
In 2008, unaccompanied children from Central American countries were a mere trickle. Now, more than 57,000 minors have been detained in the last nine months alone, a significant humanitarian crisis.
Guided by their understanding of the laws, they turn themselves in to U.S. authorities at the first opportunity after crossing the border. According to the Border Patrol, three out of four of the current unaccompanied children are from three countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The new orphan trains (they typically make their way over land to the Guatemala-Mexico border, where they catch the trains heading north) are carrying minors who come from poor communities, where gangs are predatory and violence a staple of daily life.
These are the same conditions that drove their parents to migrate to the U.S., often catching the same trains that are now ferrying their children north, victimized by the same criminals along the way.
For many of these children, the experience is both harrowing and profoundly traumatizing. Weeks of uncertainty and brutalizing danger are the defining features on the new orphan trains.
Dangers notwithstanding, the majority of these parents believe this to be their only hope for reuniting with their children; they’ve made the calculus that the risks are worth it.
As a result, the wave of unaccompanied children continues unabated for the present, and the humanitarian crisis that they represent becomes more acute with every day that passes.
President Obama is asking Congress to provide $3.7 billion in new funds to manage the influx. But these are stopgap measures. What the nation needs more than ever is well thought-out, comprehensive immigration reform.
Ricardo Ainslie is a professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and an expert in the psychological experience of immigration.