The children arrive in record numbers, without their parents, crossing a dangerous desert to reach a place that holds the promise of security.
A recent surge in young migrants, mostly from Central America, is generating an unprecedented predicament for U.S. authorities and setting off a new round of finger-pointing in Washington. Near the border, a scramble is underway to shelter the new arrivals, who will enter a backlogged immigration system after enduring the trial of their lives.
Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children (0-17 yr old)
Signalling the urgency of the situation, U.S. President Barack Obama asked lawmakers on Tuesday to approve nearly $4-billion (U.S.) in emergency funding to address the dilemma on the country’s border with Mexico.
Mr. Obama has deemed the current state of affairs an “urgent humanitarian situation.” In recent years, growing numbers of children have been fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to seek a better future in the United States, where many of them have relatives. In some cases, false rumours that children would receive residence permits once they arrived helped encourage departures.
“It’s a perfect storm of push and pull factors,” said Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington. “Circumstances have moved beyond the U.S. government’s ability to control them and that has caused a crisis which is difficult to resolve.”
From last October through June 15, roughly 52,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 17 were apprehended trying to cross the southwestern U.S. border. That’s double the amount in the same period a year earlier. About three-quarters of the migrants come from Central America, according to U.S. authorities.
The new flow of children across the border is also turning into a political melodrama. Republicans have blamed the surge on Mr. Obama’s policies, which they say have fostered a perception abroad that U.S. immigration enforcement has grown lax. The Obama administration has countered that a measure signed into law in 2008 by then-president George W. Bush with the aim of combatting human trafficking is partly responsible for the current jam.
The controversy is intensifying just as the hope for a rapid and comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration system disappears. The Senate passed such a measure last year but the Republican-led House has refused to consider it. Last month, Mr. Obama said he would seek instead to implement what changes he could using his executive authority.
The funds he is seeking in his current request to Congress would help pay to care for children while they are in the United States, expedite deportations to their home countries and beef up border security.
For now, Mr. Obama’s most pressing immigration concern is how to fashion a humane and fair response to the thousands of children crossing into the U.S. through Mexico. Under the anti-trafficking law passed during Mr. Bush’s administration, children from Central America stay in the U.S. to await an immigration hearing, usually in the care of relatives. By contrast, the law allows the vast majority of unaccompanied children from Mexico or Canada to be returned to their countries of origin within days.
The Obama administration is planning to accelerate the hearings for child migrants by moving them to the front of the line, Reuters reported. The U.S. government has also launched a public-relations blitz in Central America – including billboards and television ads – to counter misinformation about what awaits children. One such ad features a picture of a boy facing a rocky, barren landscape; the text, translated from Spanish, reads: “I thought it would be easy for my son to get his papers in the North. That wasn’t true.”
Addressing the root causes will be far harder. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with 90 homicides per 100,000 people, according to recent data from the United Nations. El Salvador is fourth on the list; Guatemala is fifth. All three countries suffer from violence linked to gang activity and drug trafficking.
In recent years, the flow of people from those three countries seeking asylum has increased dramatically – and not just in the U.S. The neighbouring countries of Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have seen a five-fold increase in such asylum applications, according to a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The same report surveyed 400 children who arrived in the U.S. after October, 2011. It found that 58 per cent had suffered or faced harm, either due to violence in their home or by organized criminal actors.
In such a backdrop, human smugglers see a business opportunity. “There’s no question they’re taking advantage of people’s desperation,” said Megan McKenna, communications and advocacy director at Kids in Need of Defense, a non-profit group that organizes legal representation for children in immigration hearings.
Ms. McKenna said that unaccompanied children are held in government shelters an average of 35 days after arriving in the U.S. Nearly all of them are then released into the care of a family member or family friend; the rest remain in shelters or receive foster care. Getting to the actual immigration hearing could take as long as 18 months or more.
“All the smugglers and family members need to know and tell the children is that they’ll get to stay here, relatively protected and unharassed for a period of time – and that’s true,” said Mr. Capps of the Migration Policy Institute. “They’re protected relative to where they came from, they tell other people, and it snowballs. The snowball is rolling very quickly downhill right now.”