The Problem: Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border

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A hot topic in immigration news this week: the skyrocketing number of unaccompanied immigrant children who are making the dangerous trip from their homes in Central America and Mexico to cross the border into the U.S.

As noted by Huffington Post writer Marco Cáceres, during the first eight months of fiscal year 2014 (October 2013 through May 2014), the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended approximately 47,017 unaccompanied children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua — some as young as 4 years old.

The number is expected to reach 90,000 this year. By comparison, Border Patrol agents apprehended 3,304 children from Central America in 2009, an average of 6,500 annually during 2010-2012, and then about 21,537 last year. We are looking at a more than 25-fold increase during the past five years in the number of children walking or hitch-hiking (atop trains) from Central America to the U.S.

More than 1,100 Central American kids are currently being held at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Nogales, Arizona. This number will quickly grow, as more than 400 children are trying to cross the border daily.

If you are a parent, can you imagine saying good-bye to your children as they set off on a treacherous and incredibly risky journey in search of better lives, knowing you may never see them again? Murder, theft and rape are not uncommon on the journey to the U.S. border. Under what circumstances would you be willing to let them go? Desperation, hopelessness and fear of an even more dangerous existence at home are the motivators which drive children on this journey and, sometimes, cause parents to arrange for the trip.

On the U.S. side, it costs money to make arrangements for these children when they arrive at the border. They must be fed, given shelter and, often, arrangements are made for legal representation at immigration proceedings or travel to meet family members in the U.S. or back home. It costs money to build fences and pay the salaries of border patrol agents who discover (or fail to discover) kids as they near the U.S.

In fact, it is estimated that U.S. taxpayers spent nearly $10 billion a year between 2000-2010 in order to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. This includes various expenses such as the cost of deploying 1,200 National Guard troops to the border, which is $110 million per year, the average salary of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent, which is $75,000—in 2010, there were 20,000 CBP agents deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border, the cost of an X-ray machine to peer into cargo trains and trucks, each costs $1.75 million—of which the U.S. uses 165. There is also the cost of building fences, employing drug-sniffing dogs, the use of predator drones, and various other incendiaries.    

If Congress ever passes immigration reform, the 700 miles of additional border fencing included in the Senate bill is expected to cost upwards of $49 billion.

Why? Why do we, as taxpayers and lawmakers, insist on spending such an incredible fortune on measures to keep out desperate people who simply want a chance at a decent life? Why not spend those billions developing opportunities for our neighbors, so that children and adults alike will not feel the need to escape their countries? Why not invest in education, trade and entrepreneurial support in order to boost opportunities for individuals, grow their economies and, in turn, reap the benefits of stronger regional trade partners for the U.S.?

When we step back and look at our immigration and border security priorities, the picture we get is of a society bent on wasting money to enforce inhumane ideals instead of making investments that would not only benefit our region but our own country, as well.

To all U.S. immigration activists, budget hawks and economists, please work with us to change the way Americans think about our neighbors and our borders. Join us in speaking to our lawmakers and communities about these ideas. What are your ideas regarding ways to shift thinking on these issues? Please share them with us in the comments section below!

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