Carl DeMaio has a simple solution to how we handle the tens of thousands of desperate Central American children who have presented themselves to the Border Patrol: Send them home.

Don’t give them hearings for asylum. Don’t screen them to ensure they’re not being trafficked.

Scott Lewis on Politics Logo

The spokesman for the former San Diego City Councilman, now a congressional candidate, gave me that take Tuesday in a statement about the need for a secure border. And he joins a growing group of Republicans making the same point.

“You cannot have a secure border if anyone can get in by asserting a right of asylum. Carl supports substantial improvements in federal border security as well as a change in the law so these individuals can be turned away,” spokesman Dave McCulloch wrote.

It was an unambiguous take on the dilemma. But it took some time to get to it. Just days earlier, DeMaio had batted away the question from KPBS about what to do with the youth who had arrived here.

“Until you secure the border you can make all sorts of other changes in immigration rules and it will still not solve the crisis of a steady flow of individuals breaking the law, crossing the border and putting a strain on communities such as San Diego,” he said.

That was a pretty standard answer for the overall immigration issue. But this question isn’t about people sneaking across the border and melting into society. These kids are presenting themselves to the Border Patrol.

We are currently holding them, and protests about what is being done for them have provoked a major national debate.

I couldn’t help but ask DeMaio what more border enforcement would achieve for people who aren’t trying to evade it.

“I tend to focus on dealing with roots of problems, not symptoms. An unsecured border is the core problem,” he wrote to me when I mentioned his comments on Twitter.

The core of the problem, though, is much further away. The sudden migration of children from Central America to the Texas border has flummoxed officials, frustrated Border Patrol agents and caused both intense anger and sympathy from people on all sides of the discussion.

And DeMaio’s stance is a bold one. He’s saying we should get rid of a 2008 law that passed Congress unopposed.

It’s called the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and it was a product of former President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It’s not totally clear how much this law and others have contributed to apparent confusion over what happens to kids who make it to this country.

But the fact is many of them are released temporarily into the country to live with family members here, potentially for years as they await hearings.

The law says we have to screen unaccompanied youth who come to this country. We have to determine whether they are being trafficked or are in other danger.

The United States can hand children from Mexico or Canada over to authorities across the border quickly. But Central American youth must be held for longer periods.

The Border Patrol has to deliver the kids over to the Department of Health and Human Services and it places them in facilities or releases them to their families while they wait for the government to decide if they deserve asylum.

But typically we have to deal with a few thousand of them. This year, it’s up tenfold. Check out this graphic from Foreign Policy magazine. The increase in referrals to the Unaccompanied Alien Children program is extraordinary. The system is overwhelmed and that’s why, for instance, Escondido was asked to consider a new facility.

UC San Diego professor and immigration expert Wayne Cornelius reminded me kids coming from Central America have been riding on top of trains to get to the United States since the 1980s. This year, though, the numbers are skyrocketing, both those hopping on dangerous trains and the ones who find other routes.

Yet the number of unaccompanied youth arriving from Mexico has remained steady. And it’s not just the United States witnessing this influx.

Countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico are dealing with big spikes in applications for asylum.

Gaps in our border security alone could not have caused these things. This all means something terrible is happening in three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

If DeMaio is interested in finding the root of this problem, he can’t stop at our border. He’ll need to make his way to Tegucigalpa. It is not just the poverty and crime in those countries. The Border Patrol claims that these kids are confused that they will be allowed to stay. Cornelius agrees there’s some of that.

“But what’s really going on now is there are extremely powerful push factors in the countries where these children and mothers are coming. As long as those push factors remain as strong as they are now, it’s inconceivable that any investment in our border security will be a sufficient deterrent,” he said.

So then, what does DeMaio’s rival, Rep. Scott Peters say?

Gotta enforce the border better! At first, responding to that same KPBS inquiry, Peters pulled out his own talking points and said the current dilemma highlights why we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s an argument Vox called “dead wrong.”

The legislation Peters is referencing, which passed the U.S. Senate but hasn’t gotten a vote in the House, would do little to impact this situation. It does add money for immigration courts and enforcement, which might speed up the time it takes to process unaccompanied children.

So I followed up with Peters too. DeMaio’s position may be merciless, but it’s clear: Send them back, Bush and all the others were wrong about human trafficking.

Peters released a statement that again reiterated his support for comprehensive reform. He also agreed with DeMaio that more enforcement would deter these kids.

“[Comprehensive immigration reform] includes much tougher border security, which would have discouraged many from attempting to cross in the first place, and it includes funds for a much greater number of immigration judges so asylum seekers could be processed more quickly,” Peters wrote.

It’s hard to picture how trying to detain more kids impacts kids who are already detained.

As for the question of asylum, Peters only reiterated that current law requires they be given a hearing.

And here I should put my bias on the table. I have enormous sympathy for kids who flee their countries. No matter what you think about the issue, if a child can make it from Honduras to Texas with no money and only hope, that’s a child with potential.

My great-grandmother had potential. Her Volga German family fled Russia early in the 20th century and landed at Ellis Island.

The authorities would not allow her father, mother and siblings to enter the country because of health concerns. So my 13-year-old great grandmother entered the United States alone. Everyone else made their way to South America and she never saw her family again.

She ended up in Colorado and worked on a farm until a shepherd, 20 years older than her, took her away and married her.

Kids have a different relationship with fear and with threats. I personally don’t see how border enforcement stops desperate young people fleeing chaos.

In fact, security — order, in place of chaos — may be exactly what they crave. If we want to deny them the hope of staying, we can make that decision and change the law.

But let’s not pretend we can stoke any more fear in them than they’ve already faced.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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