Last week President Barack Obama announced that he would use executive action to address the country’s immigration system after House Speaker John Boehner stated that the House would not vote on it this year. President Obama recently described the increasing influx of unaccompanied children entering the United States illegally as an “urgent humanitarian issue” and announced the establishment of an interagency group to manage this issue. Although the initiative will provide some relief to the thousands of migrant children currently living in the United States, it ultimately only serves as a Band-Aid solution to a deeply rooted problem that must be solved on both sides of the border. Latin America and the United States must strengthen bilateral cooperation to decrease the number of minors attempting the dangerous journey across the border.
In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, the number of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the country continues to worsen every year. In the last nine months alone, 47,000 minors have been detained after entering the U.S. illegally without the company of a parent or relative. This is almost twice as many as last year. Projections put the number of unaccompanied minors at over 100,000 in 2015.
Human rights groups note that many of these children report having been sexually abused, beaten, harassed and threatened in detention facilities in the United States. The administration’s recent attempts to address this problem — including requesting $1.4 billion to provide shelter, medical treatment, care and transportation of migrant children — are honorable and well-intentioned, but only address the late stages of a journey that should never have started in the first place. There are dangers facing these minors before they ever enter the United States, often at the hands of “coyotes” — individuals paid to smuggle these children in.
While the U.S. government shares a legal and moral obligation to provide a safe haven to those seeking refuge from their native countries, Latin America must do its part to create the social and economic stability necessary to grant its citizens the right to a decent life at home. Hundreds of thousands of migrants, primarily from Central America, are often driven out of their countries due to increasing unrest, poverty and violence provoked by drug trafficking. As the fastest growing region in the world — almost three times the rate of the rest of the world — Latin America is using its resources to implement direct and effective steps to nip the undocumented migration crisis in the bud.
For example, Ecuador’s economy is ranked one of the top four fastest growing economies in South America. The government of President Rafael Correa has overcome the country’s past of political and economic instability; and has transformed the country into an attractive place to live, work and invest.
Additionally, the government of Ecuador has invested heavily in national security, infrastructure, education and human development. Most U.S. government statistics put Ecuador at the low end of the unauthorized immigration pool. Pew Research Hispanic Trends says Ecuadorians only make up 100,000 out of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
A lack of education and understanding of existing immigration policies and resources highly contributes to the current crisis. Yearning for family reunification is the primary reason that these children attempt the perilous journey. In addition to attacking the issue individually from both sides of the border, the United States and Latin America must work collectively.
One way to do so is to warn families about the life-threatening dangers children face when crossing illegally, as well as educate them about the procedures for those seeking legal residency in the United States. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, Ecuador is also working with our consulates here to ensure their well-being and best interest according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Only by working together across the hemisphere to place the rights and safety of children as a top priority can we truly initiate the change by need. As the United States continues to battle the complex issues of establishing a comprehensive, rational, and humane immigration system, Latin America is doing its share to invest in growing its economy and providing a fulfilling quality of life for its people. Greater cooperation and dialogue on these issues that impact all countries in our hemisphere are essential. Only then will we be able to stem the irreparable trauma and violence migrant children face every day trying to find a safe and stable place to call home.
Nathalie Cely is Ambassador to the United States for Ecuador.