When 12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez and her younger sister Lorena were smuggled across the Rio Grande last year,  the children hoped for a reunion with their mother, protection from the violence that roils their native Honduras, and a better life in the U.S.

But the youngsters from Honduras achieved something else, too. There’s no question the influx of unaccompanied children like Mayeli and Lorena, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, is a game changer in immigration politics.

Whether the sisters will win their bids to become legal residents in the U.S. is not yet clear, but  Mayeli and Lorena and tens of thousands of  unaccompanied child migrants like them have both helped hardened an anti-immigration stance among some lawmakers on Capitol Hill and killed any chance, however slim, for Congress to approve an immigration overhaul this year.

On the other hand, by crossing the Rio Grande, children like Mayeli and Lorena touched off a series of events that have challenged President Obama to use his authority to make changes in immigration policy. Advocates hope the president moves to legalize the status of millions of migrants.

The arrival of unaccompanied minors on our border is not a new thing. As early as 2008, Congress responded to the arrivals of unaccompanied foreign children to the U.S. with a bill pushed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and named after a 19th century British abolitionist, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Designed to combat sex trafficking, the bill gave substantial new protections to children entering the country alone who were not from Mexico or Canada by prohibiting them from being quickly deported and allowing them to apply for asylum.

That policy was never a problem until the numbers of unaccompanied minors began to rise sharply last year, leading to overcrowded holding facilities and photos of children in dismal conditions that shook the world.

Mayeli and her sister were among those held in harsh conditions. Testifying in August before an ad-hoc panel of liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Mayeli said her trip to the U.S., arranged by smugglers known as “coyotes,” was “a big adventure.”

“We were treated like people,” she said.

But after she and her sister were apprehended by law enforcement officials at the border, the girls were held in a police station for four days, where they were forced to sleep on the floor. The overcrowded holding cell was so cold, Lorena’s lips turned blue, Mayeli said. “They gave us thin nylon blankets and two sandwiches a day,” she said.

Mayeli and Lorena were fortunate. They were released to their mother. But most unaccompanied minors being caught by Border Patrol agents are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses them and advises them of their legal rights. But a family member in the U.S. can make a claim to free them pending an immigration hearing on their status.

Other children are being cared for by Catholic Charities and other nonprofits with contracts with the Federal government to take care of them.  Yet many of the children still remain in detention centers. Media attention on their plight, and Republican charges that Obama was to blame for his failed immigration policy, prompted the president to ask Congress to change the 2008 law to make it easier to swiftly deport the children.

That drew cries of protests from liberal Democrats and Latino advocacy groups. “The Congressional Hispanic Caucus told the president we will fight for the rights of these children under the law and a lot of other Democrats will stand with us,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), said after Latino lawmakers met with Obama at the White House.

Clarissa  Martínez, a lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza, said “it’s against the law to turn these kids around.” She said the president’s call for a change in the law “was not necessary and they should not have opened the door to that. It’s the wrong prescription for the problem.” The pushback  and lack of political support forced the president to drop his plan to change the law, even as Republicans embraced the idea.

Congress’ failure to approve $3.7 billion the president had asked for --- and the refusal of even the most loyal Democratic governors like Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and Martin O’Malley of Maryland to shelter some of the children --- placed additional pressure on the White House.

So did Republicans, some of whom said the children were drug thugs or had dangerous diseases. They portrayed the arrival of about 50,000 child migrants this year, in a nation with a population of 317 million, as an out-of-control immigration crisis. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) went as far as suggesting the migrant kids might carry Ebola, a deadly disease that has never originated in the Western Hemisphere.

Luckily for the Obama admnistration, the number of child migrants began to drop as summer temperatures rose. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with holding the migrant kids, their numbers fell from 10,628 in June to 5,508 in July.

The White House was quick to claim credit, citing a Spanish-language ad campaign the U.S. and Central America asking parents not to put the lives of children at risk by attempting to cross the southwest border, and “Operation Coyote,” a surge operation by the Department of Homeland Security to target human smuggling networks in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

There were diplomatic efforts as well, with Vice President Joe Biden traveling to Central America and the White House inviting the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to Washington. In the fierce political debate that followed, several factors were blamed for the uptick in child migrants, which began last fall. Kevin Appleby, who is in charge of migration and refugee policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the increase built slowly, and the  Border Patrol and other law enforcement officers eventually became concerned.

“It wasn’t a zero to 60 miles-an-hour thing,” he said. Drug cartels in Central America had been strengthened and “I think the violence had accelerated.”

Mayeli testified that she witnessed two murders in Honduras and “was afraid I would be murdered, too.” She also said she feared for the safety of her younger sister, who suffers from epilepsy.

“I am happy for the first time in my life, living in the U.S.,” she tearfully told sympathetic lawmakers. “We can’t go back to our countries because they are very dangerous and very poor.”

Despite the stream of immigrant kids, for months there was no Obama administration action. Officials in Washington determined it was a local problem, even as a 2013 State Department report on Honduras, the nation with the most murders per capita, described serious and widespread human rights abuses.

“There continued to be reports of killings in rural areas, including the Bajo Aguan region, of indigenous people, agricultural workers, bystanders, private security guards, and security forces related to land disputes,” the State Department report said.

Other human rights abuses detailed included “violence against detainees; lengthy pretrial detentions and failure to provide due process of law; threats against journalists; corruption in government; violence against and harassment of women; child prostitution and abuse.”

According to Appleby,“Mothers were getting desperate, violence is the straw that stirs the drink.” He dismisses those who say the children are economic migrants by pointing out that Nicaragua is the poorest nation in the region, but much less violent and “it doesn’t’ have a lot of asylum claims,” or child migrants.

Another reason there’s an uptick in the arrival of foreign kids is the improving U.S. economy made it easier for immigrant parents living in here to save enough money to pay a coyote to retrieve their children in Central America. Human traffickers were also becoming more sophisticated, bribing drug cartels to help them transport the children through Mexico. And coyotes were becoming PR savvy, taking advantage of confusion about U.S. immigration policy to lead  parents to believe the children would be allowed to stay.

Some thought the children would  receive leniency from U.S. authorities because Obama two years ago granted temporary legal status to undocumented children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents in an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Those eligible for DACA can apply for  a renewable, two-year work permit and temporary reprieve from deportation proceedings.But to be eligible for DACA, children had be living in the U.S. continuously since 2007 and be at least 15 years old. And the influx of refugees predated DACA.

To Latino advocates and their allies in Congress, the situation is a humanitarian crisis, not an immigration crisis as many Republicans have claimed.“The bottom line for is that we should not be afraid that people have their day in court,” said NCLR’s Martínez. “We should do what other countries do when they have refugees on their doorstep – take care of them.”

As reported by the Washington Post, the Obama administration ignored the warning signs, including a blistering letter sent by Texas Governor Rick Perry back in April 2012, citing a 90% increase over the previous year of unaccompanied child migrants arriving from Central America. Perry warned presciently that if the president failed “to take immediate action to return these minors to their countries of origin and prevent and discourage others from coming here, the federal government is perpetuating the problem. Every day of delay risks more lives. Every child allowed to remain encourages hundreds more to attempt the journey.”

An interesting question is whether this volatile situaion was conveniently forgotten so as not to jeopardize the president’s re-election, or scuttle the chances for immigration reform, whch at the time seemed hopeful.

But like the Obama administration, Latino advocacy groups ignored the wave of child migrants coming. Martínez disputes the notion that the political fight over the kids killed off any chance of meaningful immigration reform.“That’s been over for a while,” she said. “But Republicans latched on to the problem of the children on the border to gloss over the failure of the Republican leadership on immigration reform.”

A year ago, the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration bill that would give millions of undocumented immigrants a way to obtain legal status. But the GOP-controlled House ignored the bill, preferring instead to consider measures that would increase security on the border and punish those who hire undocumented workers.

Before leaving for August recess, the GOP-led House slapped the president by rejecting his request for $3.7 billion to take care of the border problem in favor of legislation that  would address the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border by sending them home in an expedited process and scuttle DACA, which has granted temporary legal status to hundreds thousands of immigrant youth who  who have lived in the United States since 2007. That angered the president, who threatened to use executive authority to change immigration policy.

“They’re not even trying to solve the problem,” the president said. “I’m going to have to act alone, because we do not have enough resources.”

Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will present Obama with a slate of options for changing deportation policies by the end of the summer. Among those would be asking prosecutors to prioritize deportations, which are now carried out on anyone  with a criminal conviction — to exempt those who have committee minor crimes, including immigration status crimes.The administration could also alter the workings of the Secure Communities program, which crosschecks the fingerprints of individuals who are arrested against immigration databases. Obama could order changes so that fewer individuals who are arrested, and flagged as illegal immigrants, would be detained and deported.

More controversially, the president could move to expand DACA to other children, and perhaps their parents.The notion that the president would use his executive authority in the immigration arena prompted a sharp response from Republicans – who in the House are suing the president for that they say is an overreach in delaying a part of the Affordable Care Act.

“The president cannot make or nullify law,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) “He just cannot. Thus, we must in unity call on President Obama not to go through with his stated desire, which would eviscerate long and duly established American immigration law. What law might the next president ignore, bend, or nullify?”

For many observers, the “crisis” on the border has brought into sharp focus how divided our nation is on immigration. Republicans have further alienated Latinos by passing a vote in the House to cancel the universally popular DACA, yet Democratic inaction and the indifference of the Obama administration have only made things worse. While refugees like Mayeli and Lorena have touched the hearts of many Americans, others have protested when these children sought refuge in their communities. It’s been a field day for pundits on 24-hour cable and talk radio, yet there’s been little in-depth reporting on the root causes of the problem, such as U.S. support for the Honduran government. Billions of dollars have been spent to militarize the border, with everything from hi-tech surveillance to Predator drones, yet the Border Patrol was unable to prevent 50,000 children from crossing over in the past year. And all but a few Latino leaders, attending their glitzy national conventions all summer, have stood idly on the sidelines.

So the debate is certain to rage in the weeks before Election Day, and the fates of thousands of child migrants are likely to remain unclear.

By Ana Radelat


Crisis on the Border?

How Child Migrants have Changed the Immigration Debate