Eric Cantor's shocking loss comes at a time when the United States is facing a critical challenge on its southern border.
- By Shannon O'NeilShannon O'Neil is senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead.
Among the faithful, there has been at least faint hope that after the primary season ends and before midterms begin immigration reform might occur. President Barack Obama even held off on reviewing deportation policies in May to give space for a legislative fix. But now, with Eric Cantor’s loss in his House primary to Tea Party outsider David Brat, that slim chance is pretty much nil.
The tragedy is that this setback is occurring precisely at a time when the human cost of our broken immigration system has again made the headlines, this time in the faces of thousands of undocumented children flooding across the southern border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 47,000 unaccompanied youths at the border over the last eight months — mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — overwhelming U.S. border facilities and detention centers. With the UNHCR reporting that the numbers will reach 60,000 this year, this has the makings of a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
These kids make a perilous and expensive journey north, coming to escape terrible violence in Central America, which now has the infamous distinction of being one of the most violent places in the world. These nations’ weak rule of law and geography along the Colombia-Mexico-United States drug route has encouraged cartels to move in, particularly as Mexico (with U.S. support) has cracked down on these criminal enterprises at home.
Added to the scourge of drug traffickers — who have descended en masse in Honduras and El Salvador — are gangs, including the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18). Formed on the streets of Los Angeles, these groups have morphed into sophisticated transnational organized crime rings, bolstered when the U.S. government deported hardened convicts back home. These and other criminals who prey on and recruit youngsters have become so powerful in places such as El Salvador that the government has entered into a pact to stem the bloodshed. But with the truce’s collapse in May 2014, violence has again spiked.
One of the challenges these youth and others face is the high bar for asylum. To be granted refuge, one needs to prove membership in a persecuted racial, religious, national, social, or political group. This can be hard to do, especially when the threat comes not from oppressive governments but from street thugs. As a result, most will fail to meet the standard — and are then deported.
These children’s desperation also comes in part from other aspects of our broken immigration system. The hardening of the border — doubling the boots on the ground and the Border Patrol’s budget over the last decade — has made it both more expensive and more dangerous to cross into the United States. This has meant that many undocumented migrants in the United States instead stay, or stay longer, putting down roots rather than continuing a more traditional pattern of coming and going that scholars dub circular migration. Now here for the longer term, they want their loved ones beside them.
The UNHCR survey found that over a third of the children apprehended at the border had either one or both parents living in the United States. Even for those with green cards, the wait to bring children or other relatives legally can last years, if not decades. So parents make the anguished choice to bring their kids illegally in the hopes of reuniting. The more than 300,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans here through Temporary Protected Status (granted due to unsafe conditions at home), as well as those here without papers, have no such recourse to sponsor their offspring, even though many have been living and working in the United States for years, now integrated into our labor markets and communities.
The recent surge illuminates a larger problem — the millions of families with mixed immigration status, seeking to be together but divided by our current laws. Some 4 million young U.S. citizens have one or more parents who are undocumented. In many of these families, some siblings are U.S. citizens, while others — estimated at over 1 million — live in the shadows, unable to regularize their legal status without going back to countries many barely ever knew and facing decade-long separations from their kin.
Not only is immigration reform the compassionate thing to do, it makes political sense. More than three-quarters of Americans support a comprehensive overhaul. Even among Tea Party Republicans, 59 percent were behind allowing a path to citizenship.
Cantor’s demise shouldn’t end the hopes for a better system. Other Republicans far more supportive of immigration reform won their races handily. And for those thinking beyond October’s vote, appealing to Latinos will be vital to getting and staying in office. Passing immigration reform is the way for the Republican Party to get beyond the heated debates that helped bring down Cantor, and it could help the millions of children and their families caught up in the system yet already a part of the U.S. social fabric.