The flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America across the United States' southern border in recent months has raised a knotty problem for Congress and President Barack Obama: What do you call thousands of children illegally entering the country without their parents — a failure to enforce U.S. immigration laws, or a humanitarian crisis in the making?

Not surprisingly, House Republicans prefer calling it the former, then claiming Democrats and the Obama administration can't be trusted to secure the country's borders. To hear them tell it, the president is deliberately flouting U.S. laws in order to curry favor with Hispanic voters, who tend to vote Democratic in presidential election years and who form an increasingly important element of the party's base. In couching the issue that way, Republicans are no doubt hoping to reduce the pressure they had been feeling to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a prospect that would have badly divided their party and handed a victory to President Obama. But it's an oversimplification of the situation and has led the nation into a different conversation than the one it should be having.

The problem goes back to the waning days of the Bush administration when Congress approved legislation aimed at protecting minors brought into the country illegally for the purpose of prostitution. Called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act (after the 19th-century British abolitionist), the bill offered substantial new protections to children entering the country alone, except those from Canada and Mexico, by prohibiting the government from immediately deporting them back to their home countries. Uncontroversial at the time, the bill passed with broad bipartisan support, and President George W. Bush signed it on Dec. 23, 2008.

Among the protections offered by the law was a requirement that minors caught crossing the border have their cases heard at a formal immigration hearing. In addition, it directed the Border Patrol to turn such children over to the Department of Health and Human Services until their cases were decided and stipulated that they be held "in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child," preferably with family members already living in the country.

Yet Congress never anticipated the law would be applied to what is happening on the border today, which is an impending humanitarian disaster driven by young people fleeing gang violence, civil war and extreme poverty at home. The president's critics say they are just migrants who are willing to break the law for a shot to advance themselves economically. But given the dangers they face in their own countries, it's probably fairer to say that most of the young people crossing illegally into the U.S. are risking the journey not because they want to get rich but because they just want to stay alive.

President Obama, in requesting nearly $4 billion to deal with the problem, referred to it Tuesday as an "urgent humanitarian situation." But even he is not really treating it that way. The money would go toward setting up new detention facilities, increasing aerial surveillance along the border and hiring more immigration judges, among other things. Meanwhile, he is pushing Congress to grant him the same flexibility to immediately deport children from certain Central American countries as he has to deport those from Mexico.

But that won't stop the flow of refugees as long as the conditions they are fleeing remain unchanged, and it may put some of the children at risk. Vice President Biden visited Central America last month to urge the governments there to work together to stem the violence, and the president unveiled a plan to increase aid to them — but only a fraction of what he is now seeking to speed up deportations of these children.

A greater commitment to helping nations like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to stem violence and improve conditions generally is clearly necessary, but that isn't going to happen unless the president and Congress change the nature of the conversation about these children. Allowing them all to stay permanently in the United States would no doubt only make a bad problem worse. But failing to recognize them as something more like refugees than illegal immigrants is breeding resentment, particularly in border states like Texas, Arizona and California, and it is preventing the nation from crafting a truly humanitarian response.


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