Unaccompanied children flooding northwards

Undocumented children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have been crossing the southern border of the US in record numbers.   The apprehensions of undocumented child migrants has surged in recent months according to several reports in the past two weeks.

According to the Pew Research Center:
A record number of unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border since October, an influx so large that President Obama has called it an “urgent humanitarian situation.” To help house the overflow of children, emergency shelters have opened at military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma, in addition to a facility in Arizona. And the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday unveiled a new $2 million legal aid program to help children navigate immigration courts. 
Between Oct. 1, 2013, and May 31 of this year, 47,017 unaccompanied children under 18 traveling without a parent or guardian were taken into custody, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That total is nearly twice as high as all of the last fiscal year (24,493 apprehensions), with four months yet to go in the current fiscal year. One unofficial government estimate projects apprehensions rising to 90,000 in 2014—nearly four times as many as the year before.
Two factors are reported to be driving the the increased tide of children:  increased violence in Central America and a perception that US immigration policy has softened towards children.   From the New York Times:
 “We have heard sort of rumors and reports, or suggestions, that the increase may be in response to the perception that children would be allowed to stay or that immigration reform would in some way benefit these children,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It seems to be quite clear that what is driving this is what’s happening in their home countries.” 
Officials said that recently arrived children would not benefit from the immigration bill passed by the Senate last year or from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that lets minors who meet certain criteria avoid deportation. 
But even as the government moves to confront the situation, children, parents, immigration officials, lawyers and activists interviewed say that there has been a subtle shift in the way the United States treats minors. 
That perception has inspired parents who have not seen their children for years to hire so-called coyotes, guides often associated with organized crime, to bring them north. It has prompted other parents to make the trip with toddlers in tow, something rarely seen before in the region....
Experts say it is the dual dynamics of crime at home and perceived leniency across the border that have inspired many in Central America to risk the trip.
The United Nations has consistently listed Honduras, for example, as the country with the highest murder rate in the world. Its latest report said Honduras had 90.4 killings per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the rate a decade ago. In El Salvador, that number is 41.
Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who is studying Salvadoran youth migration, said 60 percent of the 326 students she had interviewed cited gangs and crime as the reason they were leaving.
“A large number are forcibly recruited by gangs,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Most kids lived in areas that are controlled by one or both of the gangs.”
The non-partisan Migration Policy Institute also described some preliminary research into what was pushing children to attempt the trip north:
The research findings are preliminary but sobering. The UNHCR report, based on a small but representative sample, suggests that high proportions of the children in custody—nearly six out of ten—have had experiences that may form the basis for relief from deportation: as refugees, victims of trafficking, juveniles recruited into criminal enterprises, or other statuses. Statistics from the Vera Institute of Justice’s Unaccompanied Children Program, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, show that 40 percent of unaccompanied child migrants taken into ORR custody in 2008-10 and screened under the VERA program were eligible for some kind of relief.
The crisis has led the US to open shelters to hold all the children it has detained in southwestern border states, including centers on military bases.  El Salvador's Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez announced that the government was checking on the conditions under which some 337 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors are being held in Arizona.  The Foreign Minister was joined by US Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte in pleading with parents not to send their children on the perilous journey through Mexico to the US border.

Yet they will still come.   If children make it across the southern border, being detained does not mean they will end up on a plane back to El Salvador:
U.S. law prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from immediately deporting the children if they are not from Canada or Mexico.  Instead, the children are turned over to Department Health and Human Services supervision "within 72 hours of DHS taking them into custody," an official said. 
Relatives living in the United States are searched for and contacted and the immigrant is given a court date. But very few actually show up and the children often become one of the millions of undocumented immigrants. (CNN).
The issues are incredibly complex.   The Migration Policy Institute has suggested some preliminary steps which could be taken in the US to deal with this crisis:

  • Child-friendly screening to establish which children need protection or have another valid claim to remain in the United States. This means both “Know Your Rights” sessions for children in custody and facilitating—and to the extent possible providing—legal counsel when they go into immigration hearings. Children should never be required to go into immigration court alone, as most do. Most of those who have counsel rely on pro bono lawyers provided by nonprofit organizations such as KIND, although the Justice Department recently announced it would fund $2 million in grants to provide about 100 lawyers and paralegals for children facing deportation.
  • Thorough but swift court hearings for children followed by return to their home countries in an expeditious manner for those who do not have a claim to remain in the United States—so that court delays do not in themselves become an attraction for illegal immigration. Swift return would also help to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, who charge stiff fees and offer specious guarantees that kids will be allowed to remain in the United States.
  • Safe return and reintegration programs devised and implemented in cooperation with countries of origin so that return is a sustainable option that does not place deported children in danger of extreme deprivation, discrimination, or violence in their homes or communities.
  • A crackdown on smugglers and others who abuse children while misleading and exploiting their families.
  • Support for countries of origin to identify at-risk kids before they undertake the dangerous journey north, and interventions to support and assist these children so that emigration does not seem their only option for a decent life.
  • Training for members of the Border Patrol, FEMA, and other authorities who come into contact with child migrants on the laws that apply particularly to children, and on appropriate ways of treating kids at apprehension, in detention, in court, and on release to an adult family member or guardian.
  • Better routes to family reunification for children whose parents are in the United States legally. This would require amendments to some elements of U.S. law. For example, the law on Temporary Protected Status can extend legal status to people for many years but does not allow them to bring their children to join them.

 These are good steps to deal with the flow of child migrants.  These steps, however, do not deal with the root causes of migration which are found in the lack of economic opportunity and hope in the northern triangle of Central America, and the gang violence which impacts the lives of so many young people in marginalized communities throughout the region.