ABC The Drum

How did the US get to the point where a progressive president proposes deporting children as a solution to a humanitarian crisis? The answer may be found in Australia's recent history, writes

Since October last year, American authorities have detained 52,000 children crossing the US border illegally. This huge number — more than double the number of children who crossed the border the previous year — has caused a humanitarian and political crisis in the United States.

The unaccompanied minors, mostly from poor and violent regions of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are being housed in temporary shelters on military bases and in gymnasiums. In California and Arizona, anti-immigration protesters have turned back busloads of children en route to shelters in their towns.

In 2008, Congress passed a law preventing unaccompanied children from being immediately deported. The law, signed by President George W Bush, requires the US to accommodate minors from Central America for months or years while they await a full asylum hearing. Barack Obama blames this law for the current crisis. He argues it has allowed traffickers to convince parents that their children will be allowed to stay in America permanently.

Obama wants to revise the law to allow the quick deportation of Central American children. He has also asked Congress for $3.7 billion to cope with the strain that the influx is putting on the immigration system.

This may seem like an odd response for a president who has pushed for immigration reform his entire presidency. Obama has consistently advocated a "path to citizenship" for immigrants who have lived in the US for many years after arriving illegally. In 2012, he signed an executive order halting the removal of immigrants who had arrived illegally as children prior to 2007.

Republicans in Congress blame Obama's 2012 executive order for the "unsecured border" crisis now. So far, they have opposed his solution because of the $3.7 billion price tag.

How did the United States get to the point where a president, a progressive on immigration issues, proposes deporting children as a solution to a humanitarian crisis? The answer may be found in Australia's recent history.

In 2012, Australia's Labor government reintroduced offshore processing to deal with unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The causes of the 2009–2012 surge in arrivals included deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a dangerous time for the losing side.

The Australian government could do little about the international crises that prompted people to flee their countries in the first place. The political debate in Australia was about what the government could control, policies for dealing with asylum seekers when they arrived. The opposition blamed Labor for relaxing the mandatory detention policies of the previous Coalition government.

Faced with more arrivals and more deaths at sea, the Gillard government accepted the logic of deterrence. As in the United States now, deterrence policies were framed in compassionate terms. The idea was to stop people from undertaking a journey that could kill them.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to deter people who are so desperate that they are prepared to board an unseaworthy vessel in the first place. Australia has found that the only way to deter asylum seekers effectively is by creating conditions worse than the ones they left. Labor's Manus Island policy, and the Coalition's "turn back the boats" policy, do appear to have stopped the influx of arrivals by sea. But this has come at the cost of creating tropical prison camps and handing asylum seekers in mid-ocean back to the military they fled.

Like Labor in 2012, Barack Obama now stands accused of creating a dangerous crisis by a policy of lenience towards illegal arrivals. And like Labor in 2012, he is prepared to alienate many of his own supporters by adopting a policy that punishes children to send a message to parents and traffickers.

But deterrence will be even harder to achieve in the US than it has been in Australia, which saw a tiny fraction of the arrivals seen in the US. The underlying problem is a collapse of law and authority in places like Honduras, where some cities have homicide rates higher than warzones. This is why children, and their parents, are prepared to take such risks to get to America. It is also why many of them are ultimately granted asylum, and why they believe they will be allowed to stay.

The United States is far from blameless in the Central American crises that forced children to flee in the first place. The US-led "war on drugs" helped create the ruthless, militarised gangs that terrorise large parts of Central America and Mexico.

An Australian-like faith in deterrence is no way for the US to deal with a humanitarian crisis it helped create. But as midterm elections get closer and border protests get uglier, even progressives may embrace deterrence with the cynical rhetoric of compassion.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum