A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. Just since October, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector has made more than 194,000 arrests, nearly triple that of any other sector. Most are from Central America, and many are children. AP/Eric Gay

President Barack Obama should denounce the anti-immigrant rabble-rousers for what they are — know-nothings who are promoting a hateful, bigoted nativism contrary to what this country is supposed to represent.

Not that the United States does much to represent idealism when its face is the loud and sullen gang of nativists in Murietta, Calif., who got plenty of time on cable news by blocking bus loads of immigrant children from a border patrol station. They are the 21st century version of the original Know Nothings, the violently anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party of the mid-19th century that became a powerful force in the country.

Instead of criticizing them, Obama said what the nativists wanted to hear: that the children would be sent back to their dangerous homelands. In an interview with ABC, he warned parents, “Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”

Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said most of the unaccompanied minors coming across the border wouldn’t qualify for humanitarian relief. Such relief would grant them refugee status and asylum in this country. International law guarantees this to refugees who are fleeing because their own governments can’t or won’t protect them.

“Based on what we know about these cases, it is unlikely that most of these kids will qualify for humanitarian relief,” Earnest told reporters. And what that means is that they will not have a legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned. …”

His statement that the children do not qualify for humanitarian relief — refugee status — is counter to the findings of the most complete study of child refugees fleeing from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, the recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report.

The U.N. staff interviewed in depth 404 girls and boys in federal custody, chosen by a random selection process designed to represent the immigrant children arriving here since the surge of migration began. The immensity of the swell is staggering. Unaccompanied and separated children apprehended in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica more than doubled from 10,443 in 2012 to 21,537 in 2013. For Mexico, the figures are 15,709 in 2012 to 18,754 in 2013. And with half this year completed, the numbers continue to grow.

“Our data reveals that no less than 58% of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection,” the report said.

The largest number, 48 percent, said their personal safety — often their lives — were threatened by criminal gangs, including drug cartels, or by crooked law enforcement officers. Abuse at home was reported by 22 percent.

The dangers posed by the gangs and the cops who let the gangs flourish and who also terrorize children, show that these boys and girls fit the U.N. definition of refugees eligible for humanitarian relief:

“It is the responsibility of states to protect their citizens. When governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens, individuals may suffer such serious violations of their rights that they are forced to leave their homes and often even their families to seek safety in another country. Since, by definition, the governments of their home countries no longer protect the basic rights of these individuals, the international community must step in to ensure that those basic rights, as articulated in numerous international and regional instruments, are respected.”

It’s a long, laborious and confusing process for children to win refugee status. At the heart of it is a deportation hearing before an immigration judge, a bureaucrat facing a backlog of cases and under pressure to speed them along.

There, in a crowded courtroom, a child is supposed to convince the judge that he or she qualifies for immigrant status. The child probably doesn’t speak English, relying on an interpreter, who is probably overworked. The child has no lawyer.

Obama’s response is to propose moving more judges to border areas and building more courtrooms. That means he would speed up an unfair process in which the child is, in effect, prejudged and presumed guilty before the hearing begins.

In his $3.7 billion request to try to stop the surge of young immigrants, Obama included $15 million for lawyers to defend the children. But this is a pittance compared with the huge sums for programs that would push the immigrants out of the country — $879 million for detention facilities, more than $433 million for border enforcement, including drones to track smuggling routes, and $64 million for more judges to speed up the hearing process. The process, immigrant advocates say, is heavily weighted against the defendants.

“The government pays for a trained prosecutor to advocate for the deportation of every child,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “It is patently unfair to force children to defend themselves alone.”

He is an attorney on a nationwide class-action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, the American Immigration Council, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel and the private firm K&L Gates to force the Obama administration to provide the children with legal representation.

Arulanantham and the others argue that the children are refugees as much as the many others who have fled their homelands for refuge in the United States. “Gangs terrorize wide areas,” he told me. “It definitely is a refugee problem. This is the kind of violence, structural, pervasive and severe, the violence that makes people want to flee.

“If you look back in American history, all the way to World War II, when the United States has turned its back on refugees, we look back in shame,” he said.

Much of that shame is from the refusal of the Roosevelt administration to admit Jews fleeing Hitler before World War II. The best remembered event occurred in 1939 when the United States would not admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the passenger ship St. Louis. The passengers had been denied entry to Cuba. The ship then headed to Florida, where permission to land was rejected, according to an account in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The St. Louis returned to Europe. The governments of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. But many were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Only 278 of them survived the Holocaust.

The United States, still in the Depression, was anti-immigrant with a strong anti-Semitic streak. Right-wing nativists rode the anti-immigrant tide. President Roosevelt, contemplating running for an unprecedented third term, was reluctant to buck this sentiment and equivocated.

The children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are entitled to a fair hearing in immigration court with their own attorneys. For Obama to hustle them out of the country without such a hearing, sending them to danger and possible death in their native lands, is as shameful as Roosevelt bowing to anti-immigrant prejudice and refusing to admit the fleeing passengers of the St. Louis.


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