Child Migration and Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis
During this fiscal year, nearly 50,000 minors have been detained by U.S. immigration authorities; almost double the number from last year. This huge influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America is threatening to become the biggest refugee crisis the United States has faced since 1980 during the Mariel boatlift when thousands of Cubans fled their home country by boat. The increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border is said to be part of a larger flow of people fleeing Central America including many families with small children. On June 2nd, President Obama ordered federal emergency authorities to take charge of the relief effort calling the surge in unaccompanied children crossing into South Texas “an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response.”
When children from non-contiguous countries are caught in the United States, they are taken into U.S. custody by Border Patrol Agents. According to Federal Law, unaccompanied minors can only be held in a Border Patrol facility for a maximum of 72 hours. After that, they either have to be sent to a relative in the U.S. where they will await a hearing to determine whether or not they can remain in the U.S., or they are sheltered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS Spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said that the office operates about 100 permanent shelters for unaccompanied minors. Because of the steep increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border recently, all of these facilities are filled. In May, the first supplemental shelter was set up at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which was equipped to accommodate 1,200 minors; by early June it had already received 1,000 minors. On June 2nd, officials said the youths would begin to be transferred to a new shelter at Naval Base Ventura County in Oxnard, California, which will house up to 600 children. Now, a third shelter has been set up at Fort Still in Oklahoma.
The Border Patrol’s holding facilities were not open to the press until June 18th when under mounting pressure from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, reporters were allowed access to processing facilities in Nogales, Arizona and Brownsville, Texas under strict guidelines that included being prohibited from speaking to any of the children. Previously, leaked photographs have shown cramped cells and an inadequate supply of food, beds, toilets, and showers. A recent lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and four immigrant rights groups on behalf of 116 children are chronicling a situation that they say “paint[s] a consistent picture of widespread abuse and mistreatment.” The groups interviewed about 1,000 children between ages 5 and 17 who had been detained in Texas this year, and found about 80 percent of them had been provided “inadequate food and water.” The complaint states that, “approximately half of the children described the denial of medical care. More than half reported physical abuse…Approximately 70 percent of these children were detained beyond the 72-hour statutory limit.”
After the children are either reunited with family, or housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they are given a court date where they are, in theory, given the opportunity to present their claims for asylum. In reality however, the children are not required by law to have a government appointed lawyer because they are not involved in a criminal proceeding. Non-profits have been scrambling to find lawyers to represent the unaccompanied minors pro bono. Immigrant Advocacy Organizations have been calling for federally funded public defenders for unaccompanied minors, and their cries for assistance have taken on a wider scope and a new sense of urgency in the face of this new influx. Recently, the Obama administration said it was starting a program to provide lawyers for children facing deportation. Under the program, the federal government will issue $2 million in grants for 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent immigrant children. In a statement issued by the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, “How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings — many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse or trafficking — goes to the core of who we are as anation.” Advocates gladly welcomed the program saying that it was long overdue. There are however, challenges presented by the new plan such as lack of training for this specific type of court case. Other advocates have critiqued the program as a seemingly small measure that fails to cope with a much larger problem, saying that, “a hundred lawyers nationwide is not going to satisfy our commitment to protecting these children…If we have to give lawyers to murderers, then perhaps we should give them to refugee orphans.” A spokeswoman for a community service corporation noted that, “The program has been in the works for a really long time… it’s consistent with the [Obama] administration’s efforts to provide a comprehensive response to the influx.” Despite the administration’s commitment to support lawyers who will help these unaccompanied minors attain asylum in the U.S., Cecilia Munoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, surprisingly anticipates that many of these young children may be deported regardless of the legal representation. In a recent article, Munoz states, “The end result of this process is likely to be that the vast majority of those kids end up going back. There may be some isolated cases where there is some basis for them to be able to stay, but the borders of the United States are not open, not even for children who come on their own, and the deportation process starts when they get here, and we expect that it will continue for the vast majority of these kids.”
There are many push factors that are creating this influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. The unrest and economic hardship plaguing many Central American countries due to gang related violence is one of the main reasons why many young people are fleeing their home countries. Daniel Penado Zavala was 17 years old when he decided to leave his home country of El Salvador after his stepfather was slain by gang members. He thought that if he stayed, he too would be a victim if he resisted the wishes of the gangs. He saved $7,000 to pay a smuggler, frequently known as a coyote, to arrange his journey first from El Salvador to Mexico, and then from Mexico to Texas. Daniel’s story is just one of many tales of young children fleeing gangs who are increasingly recruiting from schools, youth centers, and youth groups at churches to fill roles such as drug mules and assassins. In a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on June 13th, the President of Honduras spoke of the role that U.S. drug consumers have played in this disaster, “We are very worried about the children, but sadly this is a security problem provoked by drug trafficking from the drugs consumed by the U.S., and this has had an impact on the situation involving the displacement [of Hondurans].” Honduras currently has the highest murder rate in the world. In one of its cities, San Pedro Sula, 169 out of 100,000 people are murdered, making it the deadliest city in the world.
Some lawmakers, Republicans especially, are blaming President Obama and his lax immigration policies as possible pull factors for why so many children are coming into Texas. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden extended a planned trip to Central America in order to have a summit-type meeting, to be held in Guatemala, on this issue with the Presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador along with a top official from Honduras. Senior Obama Administration officials told reporters that they are greatly concerned by the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America coming to the United States. They said, “our top priority is to manage this urgent humanitarian situation… The entire U.S. administration is engaged in addressing the situation, in making sure these children are housed and fed and receive medical treatment, but at the same time we also realize the crucial importance of stemming the tide of migration.” There are misleading rumors in Central America that children who make it to the United States by June 2014 will be eligible for deferred deportation or may be eligible to stay in the U.S. indefinitely or permanently. Usually June and July are months where immigration rates are not as high, but this year will be an exception. Senior Obama administration officials said that, “The vice president will be making this trip to Guatemala to discuss both the violence and economic opportunity side and the misperceptions of U.S. immigration policy… while he’s there in Guatemala he will emphasize that illegal immigration is not safe. That putting your child in the handsof a criminal smuggling organization is not safe. And he will make clear that recently arriving children arenot eligible for [the deferred deportation program] or earned citizenship provisions in current immigration reform legislation…the bottom line is that it’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when, at the end of the day, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.” Last Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress that his agency was struggling to keep up with the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States saying, “the numbers are rising… Undeniably, there is a problem of humanitarian proportions.”
A Texas lawmaker, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas’ 28th District, recently visited with Border Patrol agents and children while touring an immigration detention facility. Talking to the Border Patrol agents, Cuellar found that they were pained to see so many children and mothers crossing the border. He has asserted that the United States must do more than use enforcement to stop this surge of child migrants. He is urging the country to do more to prevent children from dangerously travelling to the United States in search of economic opportunity and safety by helping to build up the Central American economy: “We as Congress pay attention to all over the world except our own backyard… I’ve been saying we have to do more with those economies in the south. If not, they are going to keep coming.”
To deal with the influx of immigrants the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Committee unveiled a $1.94 billion bill that would give the Department of Health and Human Services the means to fully deal with the increase. Meanwhile, the White House has announced that the issue will be addressed in the upcoming Homeland Security and State Department appropriation bills. The bills will not ask for increases for the already-written departmental allocations, but will instead halt or reverse sequestration limits for more than two-dozen areas. Administration officials further announced $9.6 million in additional support to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to help them reintegrate people who have been sent back, along with $40 million to launch a program to improve security in Guatemala, a $25 million program to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are vulnerable to organized crime, and $18.5 million to build youth outreach centers in Honduras. While most of the recent attention has been focused on the influx of unaccompanied minor immigrants coming into the U.S., law enforcement officials are becoming increasingly worried about the effect this surge is having on drug traffic coming into the U.S. The Border Patrol union representative in the Rio Grande region, Chris Cabrera, highlighted the issue in a recent statement, saying, “The arrival of large groups of women and children on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande is pulling agents away from their patrol stations elsewhere along the border, creating gaps in coverage that the traffickers can exploit… The smugglers wait on the southern banks of the Rio Grande as migrant groups as large as 250 wade across at dusk and turn themselves in to the Border Patrol…then groups of single men proceed to cross under cover of darkness…The most recent statistics…show that narcotics seizures have fallen across the entire border with Mexico this year.”
Margaret Dunne, IIHA Intern
For More Information: