The media cycle, political theater and the border crisis myth

Extensive media coverage of unaccompanied Central American children pouring across Mexico's border into the United States has, unsurprisingly, been followed by political attention to the problem. Politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) have reduced the focus to a single strip of land in south Texas and threatened to deploy the National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to taxpayers; communities from California to Massachusetts have responded with flag-waving protests to emotional pleas for assistance; Central American diplomats have traveled to Washington to ask for help. America is again witnessing a drama involving familiar players and themes: the media, politicians, threats, emotion, diplomacy and no real solutions.

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In situations like this, the facts tend to get lost. What are the key facts and the potential long-term solutions?

Nothing new under the sun

Unaccompanied minors have been crossing the border alone for years. The phenomenon is not new. What is new is, first, the fact that the number of children crossing alone has spiked, straining the operational and processing capacity of the Border Patrol, immigration authorities and the courts. That so many children are being detained, however, shows that the Border Patrol is actually doing its job. Second, the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America has skyrocketed, while the number of children from Mexico has dropped. This merits a closer look at what is going on in Central America to push these children north and what is pulling them to the United States. Third, rather than an immigration problem, the issue must be reconceived as a transnational issue symptomatic of deeper problems in Central America, and one that requires comprehensive solutions.

This is largely a manufactured crisis, mostly due to the fact that it has become part of a 24-hour news cycle that feeds on stories that appeal to emotions and draw incendiary remarks from politicians. In this regard, it is fair to conclude that even if the issue is an old problem brought to light by the media, the solution cannot be driven by the media or political grandstanding.

Wrong focus: The border

The media coverage of unaccompanied minors pouring across the border has drawn attention to the Mexican border, again. But focusing on the border misses the point. This is not a border issue, contrary to what Perry might think. It is easy for politicians to produce simple diagnoses and solutions. But these myopic approaches have proven unsuccessful in the past, whether in regard to the war on drugs, illegal immigration or cartel-related violence. Focusing on the border has, to the contrary, cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and tens of billions of private sector dollars.

Push and pull forces

The spike in unaccompanied minors coming from Central America merits a close look at the situation on the ground. The academic literature has long divided the forces behind any migration into push and pull forces. And, indeed, both are at work here. On the push side, the political, social and economic conditions in the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) have slowly deteriorated; a high level of criminal activity has made the region one of the most dangerous in the world. For many Central American families, the fear of gang recruitment of youth, rape of young women and extortion is real.

On the pull side, a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush allowing unaccompanied children to stay in the United States with close relatives until a judge can hear their case is the subject of countless hopeful discussions in Central America.

If the United States cannot as a nation-building effort address the political, economic and social development crisis in Central American more broadly, the problem will continue — particularly as organized criminal groups feed hopes in Central America about the possibility of unaccompanied minors making use of the 2008 law.

Mexico's absence

The solution to this issue must also recognize the problem as a regional one. Not only should the U.S. seriously consider Central America's development in the long term, but Mexico should also be at the table and take responsibility for its own problems, which exacerbate Central America's. For instance, Mexico has lately been in denial about its own organized crime problems that extend well into Central America.

The president's aid package

It is unfortunate that President Obama has approached this issue by asking Central Americans to stay home and by demanding that Central American nations do more to stop people from emigrating. This makes little sense, given the dreadful situation in Central America and current U.S. law. It is equally unfortunate that Congress has refused to seriously consider the president's request for funding, including aid to Central America. The root of the problem in Washington is a philosophical disagreement about the role of the U.S. as a force for economic, political and social development in its own backyard. Until we take a more active role to address the overall economic, social and political situation in Central America, we will not find workable solutions. We will go from crisis to crisis for the foreseeable future with occasional episodes of political theater.

Payan, Ph.D., is director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's Baker Institute. He is the editor of a forthcoming volume titled Undecided Nation: Political Gridlock and the Immigration Crisis.