Op-Ed: Myths hinder solutions to crisis of immigrant youths at border

September 10, 2014
In The News

"Para una vida mejor."

For a better life. That is how a young Salvadoran boy detained at the McAllen Station detention facility in Texas responded when I asked him, "Why did you come here?" His answer and what I heard from front-lineBorder Patrol agents last week in McAllen contradict three big myths swirling around the humanitarian crisis of approximately 400 unaccompanied children crossing our border each day. Everyone should be able to agree that this crisis needs to be solved. Unfortunately, these myths threaten to stand in the way of solutions.

The most common myth is the sounding of the "border is not secure" alarm bells, rung repeatedly by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to me at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in McAllen. Actually, what I saw firsthand shows just the opposite. Border Patrol agents told me that most of the children, who primarily are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and are often riding atop freight trains to get to America, seek the first Border Patrol agent they can find upon crossing.

Vastly increasing the number of "boots on the ground" only would increase the number of open arms into which these children run. By contrast, the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments need infrastructure and technology to secure the border, resources to care for these children and personnel to more quickly process asylum and other claims. Congress should quickly provide these resources without letting petty politics interfere.

Another myth is the "root cause" diagnosis, perpetuated by congressional Republican leadership and Gov. Perry, who testified that President Obama's policies are squarely to blame for the sudden influx of these children. But the numbers do not add up to support this claim. Obama's most substantive action regarding immigration was his 2012 decision allowing deferred action for certain undocumented immigrant children already in the U.S. Was there a surge following this order? No, the dramatic surge is just now happening. So, unless Gov. Perry and the GOP are suggesting good news travels fast, except to Central America, it is clear other factors must be at play.


Interviews by Border Patrol agents overwhelmingly show the children are coming here to seek better lives and escape violence. The desire to flee danger makes sense because El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have three of the top five homicide rates in the world.

The solution, then, is to directly address the lack of economic opportunity and threats to personal security in these countries. We can do this through direct foreign aid, trade policies, and going on offense against the drug cartels and smugglers profiting from the fears of the parents sending their children on this journey.

"Send them home" is a slogan that we see printed on protest signs in Murrieta (Riverside County) and across the country. But this, too, is a myth. To do so is not legal, easy or right.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, signed by President George W. Bush, requires any child from a country other than Mexico or Canada who has crossed our border be placed into the care of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. We need to examine the 2008 law to find a way to quickly and humanely assess which children may have a legal claim to remain here and who can be sent back. In this process, we must not forget these are children. Many of them are escaping violence to come to America and seeking what many of us were born into - freedom and opportunity.


I went to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas to help solve a humanitarian and security crisis. While we cannot endlessly receive 400 new immigrant children a day, we should not jump to seemingly easy conclusions that ignore the facts on the ground. For the sake of our country and these children, it is time to separate truth from fiction and act on the realities of this situation.

Eric Swalwell represents the 15th District (parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties) in the House of Representatives.