It's hard to say whether the Obama administration's response to the influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children across the U.S. southern border is bureaucratic, hapless or humane. Quite possibly it's all three.
President Barack Obama has no good options, only two overriding and divergent imperatives. First, to care for the children already in the U.S. Second, to return as many of them as possible to their home countries as quickly as possible.
Nothing about this crisis is easy, and it's tempting to view it as an especially vexing microcosm of U.S. immigration dysfunction generally, replete with phony politics and sincere heartache. But it would be a profound mistake to allow the gridlock and grandstanding that characterize the immigration debate in Washington to infect the administration's response to the emergency on the border.
The minors are being pushed north by violence -- predominantly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which last year earned designation as the "murder capital of the world." They're also being pulled by the prospect of leniency if and when they reach the southern border of the U.S. En route, they are often preyed on by traffickers, organized criminals and corrupt officials, and risk their lives atop dangerous freight trains and through lawless terrain.
Better criminal justice and opportunity south of the border may be the only way, in the long term, to stem the flow of immigrants. But there are actions the U.S. can take, on both sides of the border, to improve the odds.
In Central America, where Vice President Joe Biden is meeting with leaders today, the Obama administration can increase funding for combating criminal networks and better coordinate with governments on how the money is distributed. The administration is set to spend about $130 million this year on the Central American Regional Security Initiative. To put that amount in context, the White House has estimated it will cost more than $2 billion next year to handle all the unaccompanied children fleeing the region.
In Mexico, the treacherous freight rail system is an obvious place to start. Migrants ride atop the network of trains known as "el tren de la muerte" through Mexico on their way to the U.S. Many, including children, lose limbs and lives en route. Others are raped or robbed. Mexican and U.S. officials, working with the freight carriers, should provide more security on the trains. Migrants need more than their own fear to deter them from riding north.
Finally, there is the problem nearest at hand: tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant children who have already crossed the border into U.S. custody. It's extremely difficult to expedite hearings for unaccompanied alien children without violating due process. Many children will claim refugee status or other circumstances that enable them to stay in the U.S.; some of those claims will be legitimate. Given already overburdened immigration courts, it can take a year or more to get a hearing. If an undocumented child has an able lawyer, the legal process can be drawn out for years.
The Obama administration is going to have to find a way to quickly screen applications for asylum and residency. The only way to do that responsibly is to do it expensively, with more trained legal and social workers. Even that has limits. Traumatized children are not always immediately forthcoming in interviews. It can take time for their stories to unfold and for the facts to be revealed.
The process must begin immediately. The rumor -- and reality -- of sanctuary in the U.S. is certain to drive thousands more children from Central American towns to the U.S. border. It's unlikely those rumors will be put to rest until many of the children already in the U.S. return home.
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