The Fierce Urgency of Immigration Reform

A bipartisan deal is needed to stop the U.S. immigration crisis.

Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. CBP provided media tours of centers in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, locations central to processing the thousands of unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1.

The U.S. must prioritize the health and safety of migrant children.

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Thousands of children entering the country illegally have become the face of the immigration crisis in the U.S. The images of children traveling on top of trains and packed into warehouses are a wakeup call to legislators and the Obama administration that immediate action needs to be taken on the immigration issue.

President Barack Obama has stated that these children will be sent back to their countries. The question is when. And his track record so far has been weak. From October 2013 and September 2014, the Obama administration estimated that 90,000 children were caught illegally crossing the Mexican border without their parents. Yet fewer than 2,000 children have returned to their countries.

Children are being placed in foster homes or staying with relatives waiting for the slow moving bureaucratic government to take action. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte addressed the issue of how the government fails to track these youngsters. He stated that 90 percent of mostly teenage immigrants who entered the country illegally will not show up to their immigration court hearings, and that approximately 135,000 of them will go missing.

[SEE: Cartoons on Immigration]

President Obama and the Democrats have also sent conflicting messages, which has added to the problem. Youngsters who arrived to the United States have mentioned that they could stay in the United States once they entered. Others have heard that there has been a change in the law where border patrols release women and children and let them stay in the United States. The president has been highly criticized for failing to enforce the law and sending mixed signals to those across the border, giving them false hope.

Both political parties need to find common ground in immediately resolving this humanitarian crisis. The first place to start is simply acknowledge that we are dealing with children and teenagers. Separation from their families can be a traumatic experience.

We can learn a lesson from American history. When the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro seized power, parents sent their children to the United States under the Pedro Pan program in 1960s. Approximately 14,000 children arrived in Miami under the sponsorship of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. They were placed in temporary shelters, and some lived with families across the country. The separation was a difficult experience for these children and their families, but these children were the lucky ones. They were given a chance for a better and free life.

[READ: The GOP Must Move on Immigration Now]

While El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are not under communist rule like Cuba, Central America has become the most violent region in the world. Joaquin Villalobos, an international conflict resolution consultant, explained, “the region is in a state of emergency, like that of the 1980s war.” Homicide rates are rapidly increasing, with Honduras having the highest murder rate; violence associated with gangs and organized crime continues to escalate out of control. The people in Central America are living in fear. And that is why these families are willing to take the risk in search of a better life.

Poverty and political instability also contribute to individuals who want to leave their native countries and come to the United States. The future of these youngsters in Latin America is bleak, and these Latin American families yearn for freedom and better opportunities for their children. Despite the political infighting and gridlock, the United States continues to be the land of opportunity for these migrants.

The Republicans have earned a bargaining chip with this crisis. They should insist that President Obama and the Democrats accept a step-by-step approach to resolve the immigration stalemate in Congress.

In the meantime, the welfare of these children and women should be a top priority. The Senate has already approved $2 billion for the child migration crisis. This funding might create heartburn for the financial hawks in Congress, but it is important to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of these children. Let’s keep in mind that these are children in a difficult situation.

On a broader scale, the U.S. government needs to work closely with these Latin American countries so that these types of humanitarian crises are avoided. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala to warn that those entering the United States illegally have little chance of staying. However, his words were empty and followed by little action.

[SEE: Cartoons on the Democratic Party]

This raises a broader question of how the U.S. and Latin America can expand trade and curb violence in the region. Greater interaction and investment in Latin America is beneficial to the economic and national security for both regions. However, Ruben Barbosa, former Brazilian ambassador to the United States, stated, “Latin America continues to be a low priority for the Obama administration.”

The U.S. should not continue to ignore Latin America. Our nation shares regional and cultural ties with these neighboring countries.

Finding a resolution to this humanitarian crisis is critical to avoid a massive exodus from Latin America to the United States. These children entering our country illegally serve as a reminder that we cannot afford to let the immigration issue die in Congress. The strains of illegal immigration will continue to plague our country unless immediate bipartisan action is taken.