Steve Chapman

The exodus is not just across the Rio Grande. The UN refugee agency says the number of people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala seeking asylum in neighboring countries, from Mexico to Panama, has risen a stunning 712 percent since 2008. They aren't showing up in those places because of anything Barack Obama has done.

A report from the agency notes the stark findings of interviews with 104 children from El Salvador: "Sixty-six percent of the children cited violence by organized armed criminal actors as a primary motivator for leaving, and 21 percent discussed abuse in the home. ... Only one child mentioned the possibility of benefiting from immigration reform in the U.S."

Nor would these kids stop coming here if we immediately shipped them back where they came from. We already do that with Mexican children apprehended at the border -- yet they still outnumber the Central Americans. The impulse to escape from violence and poverty is too strong to suppress. Those who want in badly enough will keep trying until they make it.

Many of those on this side of the border denouncing the arrivals say they are opposed only to illegal immigration. But the reason so many foreigners come illegally is that we offer no other avenue. The annual number of legal spots for low-skilled immigrants is 5,000 -- for the entire world. Even foreigners with family members living here legally may have to wait decades to be allowed in.

Central Americans in terrible straits don't have the luxury of waiting, and getting tougher won't make them more patient. Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission, says it's like using threats to keep people in a burning house: "If they're in a burning house, they're going to jump out a window, run out the door, find a way out."

We can send them home, but that won't mean we've seen the last of them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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