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What Can Obama Do About the Surge of Minors from Central America?

What Can Obama Do About the Surge of Minors from Central America?

Last fall, as part of Shadow Government’s 12-Step Plan to recovering Obama’s foreign policy mojo, I suggested launching an initiative to protect the young hearts and minds of unaccompanied minors crossing international borders. One of the crises an initiative like this might have averted is now upon us, and the administration is struggling to handle it: The growing number of unaccompanied minors migrating from Central America to the United States has become a "surge" with no end date in sight. Last week, the president declared it a humanitarian crisis and ordered FEMA officials to coordinate the response. He also is asking Congress for $1.4 billion to help the agencies cope.

The youth, mostly teenage boys, although with a growing number of girls and younger children, primarily are fleeing gangs and related violence in their home countries. You can read some of their harrowing stories here, here, and here. While I do not believe the administration caused the disaster as some are arguing, it was hardly unexpected. The dramatic increase in numbers began during Obama’s first term, and he cannot shift blame for this serious lack of preparedness. Federal agencies now are scrambling to cope by opening military bases for temporary housing and busing the kids back to border states for deportation. States like Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona are bristling at the influx of children in Federal custody coming to be sheltered there. One local county official in Arizona has even accused federal agency personnel of child abuse for violating state laws. Recent photos from Texas reveal the extent of the crisis and the inability of the agencies to manage this population.

Ignoring the brewing crisis did not make it go away. Now the administration has another chance to proactively address the underlying issues even as they rush to meet immediate needs. My pleas for better coordination of diplomacy and foreign aid to strengthen child protection globally (here, here, and here) have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Perhaps this emergency will prompt long needed fixes. I have two suggestions.

First, the administration should prioritize support for the "source" countries to improve their own child protection systems. Some countries like Guatemala, which contributes the largest percentage of these young people, are trying to make changes. We should help them by channeling assistance through the U.S. Action Plan on Children in Adversity to improve programs for children who are abandoned, vulnerable, or in conflict with the law and to handle the re-integration of deported children. The State Department also should help by supporting Guatemalan first lady Rosa Leal de Pérez who has turned this into her signature issue. She has initiated regional discussions to include the First Lady of Mexico but would likely welcome more diplomatic support from the United States for her efforts. With Texas as ground zero and children ending up further away in Chicago as well, former First Lady Laura Bush and First Lady Michelle Obama are well positioned to join their counterparts south of the border to help. Preferably, they might join forces to do so. It could be a wonderful model of bipartisan leadership on an issue both strategic and humanitarian for the United States and their respective home states.

Second, the administration should keep an eye on the big picture of unaccompanied youth globally in the midst of the urgency of this particular crisis. The president has directed the Department of Homeland Security to establish an interagency "Unified Coordination Group" to respond to the current situation. It would be wise to make permanent this group along the lines of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and its Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG) to manage the complex legal and operational issues that accompany work with children and that have both national security and domestic policy elements. If Congress agrees, it also would be wise to use some of the $1.4 billion to invest in improved and coordinated data management systems in both the United States and Central America. Full disclosure: I have launched an organization called Each Inc. that is building new technology tools for this purpose. But there are other systems that could be adapted to track the identity and case history of these children. However it’s done, we need better interagency coordination, underpinned by better ways to track these children securely across borders. Without it, the surge will become a perpetual flood, and the administration will have only itself to blame.