Children on the Border: “Illegal Immigrants” or “Refugees?”

Children on the Border: “Illegal Immigrants” or “Refugees?”

I read an interesting op-ed piece by Thomas Sowell this week. Dr. Sowell is an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His piece

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argues that it is perfectly legitimate (and not inherently racist) to be alarmed by the porousness of our borders and to be emphatic about our need to have control. It’s a good piece. I concur with his insistence that there are legitimate arguments to be made on many sides, and that branding opponents as “racists” simply because they are concerned about border security is not constructive or honest.

But something caught my eye in Dr. Sowell’s piece of which he may, or may not, be aware.

In nearly seven hundred words, Dr. Sowell never once uses the word “refugee,” even when writing about historical examples of mass migrations to flee epidemics. “Illegal immigrants” appears five times.

Dr. Sowell is right about the importance of labels. What we call something profoundly affects our orientation toward it. But the labels about which we should be concerned aren’t limited to whether a particular advocate for a particular point of view is a racist.

A profoundly important question of labeling is, are these children “illegal immigrants” or “refugees?”

That question can’t be answered as a generalization.

To be a refugee, according to the United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees, one must:

  • be “outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence”
  • have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”
  • be “unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection” of the country or nationality or habitual residence, “or to return there, for fear of persecution.”

There are other requirements, mostly conditions that disqualify someone from refugee status because of their criminal behavior or their participation in the cause of persecution itself.

Let’s take the illustrative case of an imaginary Guatemalan girl, 12 years old, who crosses the border into the U.S. (my imaginary case borrows information from various news reports).

There’s no question that the first criterion is met. Indeed, every illegal immigrant meets the first criterion; they’re here. (They wouldn’t be “illegal” if they weren’t.)

Everything hinges on the second criterion, with its multiple components. Let’s say that this girl has been carefully sheltered in her home since she was eight or nine because of the violence against women that has been likened to a war on women in Guatemala. In the last two years, several other young girls of the family’s acquaintance have been raped or murdered (or both), and still others have been compelled to become sex slaves of gang members. She barely escaped such a fate herself earlier this year.

Sounds like a well-founded fear of persecution. But is it because of any of the identified causes?

I think it is fair to say that the point is debatable, but the odds may favor the assertion of refugee status in a case

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such as this specific and admittedly hypothetical example. I can readily imagine an attorney for this girl arguing that the persecuted group of which she is a member is young women. Certainly the international community has recognized that such targeting of women is going on (in many parts of the world) and has granted refugee status to those who flee successfully.

So, for the sake of argument, we grant this girl the second criterion. Then it is simple to demonstrate that the third criterion also is met. She wasn’t able to rely upon the protection of her country before, and nothing has changed.

Viola! A refugee.

Except . . . here in the U.S., according to our immigration laws, we add an additional criterion:

If this additional criterion was about keeping out terrorists and criminals, it probably wouldn’t add much that isn’t already covered by the UN Convention. No big deal.

But, as anyone familiar with our immigration rules and regulations knows, “admissible to the United States” is a pretty high bar.

The point is this:

Around the world, children innocent of any serious offense (other than crossing the border) who are fleeing persecution because children are being targeted in their home country probably would be considered refugees. Here, in the country that prides itself on its moral goodness, these children are likely to be considered “illegal immigrants.” The first classification provides them protection; the second, deportation.

We expect other countries to deal with floods of people fleeing dangerous conditions in nearby countries. We don’t expect them to welcome them in as immigrants necessarily, but we do expect them to shelter them until the trouble passes or other arrangements can be made. Sometimes, that process takes years.

Here, we are left to try to manipulate our arcane immigration laws for humanitarian ends (as the Obama Administration appears to be doing), or to force these children back into the very dangers from which they fled.

How would you like to be the Border Patrol officer or National Guard trooper who gets to take a truckload of boys and girls across the border to Mexico?

“Stay warm and well-fed, kids. And try not to get raped or murdered.”

That’s not the image of our nation I teach. I hope it’s not the image we’ll chose to cherish.

2 Responses to Children on the Border: “Illegal Immigrants” or “Refugees?”

  • Richard L. Block

    Dear Dr. Paine, As a person who lived for more than twenty years in Ecuador, I can attest from personal experience that the mass invasion of our country’s borders is motivated more from economics than persecution. All countries have situations which place children in danger, including ours. Again, from personal experience working for the Florida Department of Children and Families I can also attest to the scores of our children falling prey to the same evils as the children in Central America. It is time for all Americans to wake up and admit that the flow of illegals is caused by the expansion of our welfare state. It’s not the privileged Honduran, Guatemalan or Salvadorian that’s invading-they visit. It’s the rural and poor members of their society. They come because it is easier for them to improve their economic well being in our country. The Irish, Jewish, Italians and others did the same, but they succeeded by the sweat of their brow and furthermore they came in legally, respecting our country’s laws. They also learned English and assimilated into our society. The new illegals only bring to mind the host of Mexicans waving Mexican Flags in our faces on Cinco de Mayo, a day which they themselves don’t understand. The faster the children and their illegal parents are returned the better. They can then begin the legal process to come to our country. As the father-in law to two Ecuadorian women, who are both now United Sates Citizens, I can also attest that there are right ways and wrong ways to do things.

    • Dr. Scott Paine


      Thank you for your comments.

      I absolutely agree that there are a large number of children in this country being victimized in similar ways to the kids in Central America. One fundamental difference, however, is that the institutional capacity of our governments (local, state and federal) to deal with these threats is much greater than that of the governments of these countries . . . Whether or not we effectively use that capacity.

      There is good evidence to support the belief that conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala today are very different than conditions in those countries a few years ago, and very different than Ecuador as well. One recent highlights how conditions have been changed by developments in the war on drugs in the last few years.

      Poverty remains a driver of migration, of course. Neither economic opportunity nor fear of violence explains the entire dynamic. Both appear to have a role in the present situation. I’m urging recognition of the refugees; your concern about recognizing freeloaders is a fair balance to that.

      It also should be noted, however, that there isn’t a lot of evidence for the claim you make about freeloading immigrants. I welcome sources that demonstrate the contrary.

      As for this wave of immigrants being different in their attitudes relative to assimilation and to preserving their heritage, I don’t believe your assertion is historically accurate. Anyone familiar with the history of East and West Coast cities over the last two centuries will attest to the emergence of ethnically segregated neighborhoods where business was conducted in the language of the motherland or fatherland, where worshippers prayed in that language, and where the English-speaker from outside the community often felt like a foreigner. What, after all, is St. Patrick’s Day, if not a grand declaration ultimately of the assimilation by mainstream U.S. culture of another nation’s holiday? Once upon a time, Irish immigrants to this country were described in terms very similar to those used to condemn today’s immigrants from Central America, adjusting for the difference of the troubles of the times.

      Blanket characterizations of any group always are problematic. Not all of these children are refugees, nor are all of them innocent, nor will all who are allowed to stay prove to be productive citizens. But neither are they all simply looking for a handout for life, nor a place where they can recreate their hometown on U.S. soil.

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