The good news at the U.S. border with Mexico is that the flood of children from Central America crossing illegally, now totaling nearly 60,000, has slowed. The bad news is that those whose aim it is to stop legal immigration reform are using the kids to fan fears and turn a humanitarian crisis into political blackmail for anyone even contemplating positive changes in current law.
At the height of the crisis in late June, some 350 unaccompanied minors were crossing illegally each day. Last week that number had dropped by more than half. Clearly, news stories and a U.S. government-funded ad campaign in Central America, as well as word of mouth from immigrant communities in the U.S., have spread the word that kids who make it into the U.S. won't be able to stay permanently. The administration has already begun to deport children who came with parents, and even pro-reform advocates are pushing for changes in law that would treat Central American youngsters the same as Mexicans, allowing for expedited removal.
In the meantime, however, the children already here are suffering in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions -- and fearmongers are peddling disinformation to discourage communities from allowing the children to be housed more humanely. Protests have led ugly mobs to confront buses carrying the children to centers away from the border. Politicians from both parties have taken a hard line against allowing children to be housed in their communities. And cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere are filled with stories about an "invasion" of illegal immigrant children bringing disease and gang violence into the American heartland.
The worst stories suggest that the kids are carrying life-threatening infections. In what may be the most reprehensible allegation, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., a retired ob-gyn, wrote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that the children may carry "swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis." Ebola virus! The deadly virus -- which leads to organ failure and bodily fluids leaking from the eyes, noses and other orifices of victims, killing about 90 percent of those affected -- has never been found outside of Africa.
In an interview with NBC's Luke Russert, Gingrey acknowledged there weren't any known cases of Ebola among the kids, but then threw in smallpox as a possibility: "Smallpox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns." The last known case of smallpox in the world occurred in 1978. The World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980, and it exists only in a few laboratories (including one run by the CDC, which recently uncovered vials containing the virus in a forgotten storage closet outside of Washington D.C.).
The children come from countries that have a 93 percent vaccination rate against most childhood diseases, and given their social status in families able to afford the thousands of dollars in fees to transport them north, they are very likely to be among those who have been vaccinated. But in any event, the children receive vaccinations once in U.S. custody.
A few cases of flu, including one confirmed case of swine flu, and four of children who tested positive for TB have been found -- but the incidence in a population this large hardly suggests the danger of epidemics breaking out. More common are cases of scabies and head lice, both diseases carried by parasites: the first, a small mite that gets under the skin and causes a rash; the second, a problem that affects an estimated six million to 12 million mostly white children in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.
There's little evidence to support the claim that the influx of unaccompanied minors includes many gangbangers, either. There is a direct link between the crisis and violent drug cartels and gangs -- but not what talk-show hosts would lead you to believe with their file-footage pictures of tattooed MS-13 members already in U.S. jails.
The kids are fleeing gangs in their home countries, not coming here to establish them. The whole breakdown in civil society, which has become endemic in parts of Central America, is a direct result of the drug trade that feeds America's nearly insatiable appetite for cocaine, meth, heroin and other illegal drugs. It's U.S. demand for illegal drugs coupled with the successful U.S. interdiction of drugs through the Caribbean that created the problem in Central America. As The Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia O'Grady recently noted, "This crisis was born of American self-indulgence. Solving it starts with taking responsibility for the demand for drugs that fuels criminality."
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.