In our opinion: Children immigrants entering U.S. may end up as refugees — and Utah should be ready to help

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 17 2014 7:21 a.m. MDT

This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children crossing alone into the U.S. can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences. The chief reasons are an overburdened, deeply flawed system of immigration courts and a 2002 law intended to protect children's welfare, an Associated Press investigation finds.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

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The border crisis caused by a surge of more than 50,000 young immigrants entering the United States in search of some form of asylum is presenting an immediate humanitarian problem that needs to be addressed, even outside the national debate over immigration policy.

Even so, how the nation copes with this surge of immigrant-refugees sets the tone for how the nation proceeds on the larger issue of overall immigration reform.

The wave of unaccompanied minors from Central America has takes the country, and the Obama administration, to a fork in the road between a hardline posture of strict enforcement, or a more compassionate direction that recognizes the very real human tragedy embodied in the mass flight of children and adolescents from their homelands.

As authorities begin sifting through the particulars of each immigrant’s situation, it becomes clear the majority of them will stay in the United States for an extended period of time. The Secretary of Health and Human Services addressed the National Governors Association on the need for individual states to help accommodate the migrants. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was present at the conference, but Utah has not been specifically asked to participate.

Should such a request be made, it would be difficult for the state to refuse. Utah has offered a prominent voice in the national discussion over immigration reform, encouraging a compassionate approach toward individuals and families who have come here to better their lives. And the state has a robust record of receiving those fleeing untenable and inhumane living conditions.

Hundreds of families displaced by Hurricane Katrina were welcomed here. Over a period of decades, Utah has opened its doors to tens of thousands of refugees from places like the Sudan, who have established enduring communities within our borders.

Those attempting to escape oppressive conditions in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are in similar circumstances. However these immigrants have managed to arrive in such a sudden surge does not mitigate the level of desperation that has brought them to our door.

Authorities believe a large number of the recent arrivals were prompted to travel north by knowledge that minors arriving from places other than Mexico can avoid immediate deportation under a 2008 law passed to help those vulnerable to sex trafficking and other illegal activity. There is also evidence that organized criminal elements connected to drug cartels have capitalized on that exemption by facilitating travel and extorting money from families hoping for a better life for their children.

That kind of depravity must be checked, and it is appropriate that the Obama Administration has dispatched a team of investigators to try and disrupt such criminal enterprises. It is also appropriate to actively consider the bipartisan call for an amendment to the 2008 law to stem a possible tide of others who may be plotting to migrate under a presumption of automatic acceptance.

While both efforts are reasonable responses to the crisis, neither of them will help those already here, nor will they suffice as any kind of long-term solution to the broader problem.

The current crisis is a fresh re-awakening to the complexities around enforcement of our immigration system. More and more Americans are coming to realize that it is broken and in need of a solution.

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