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The 2014 Central American migrant crisis

In the summer of 2014, the United States government (and the American public) were startled by an influx of children traveling alone, and families, from Central America to the Rio Grande Valley in the US. But by the fall, the number of migrants had dropped considerably — and the crisis had already fallen out of public attention. Here's what happened.What was the 2014 child and family migrant crisis?

What was the 2014 child and family migrant crisis?

In the early years of the 2010s, hundreds of thousands of children took a journey like this one described by Mother Jones in 2013:

Audelina Aguilar set off on the six-week journey along the migrant trail at 14, leaving her parents and nine younger siblings behind in the highlands of rural Guatemala. She rode atop Mexican freight trains, from Chiapas in the south to Tamaulipas in the north. She fought off a would-be rapist with the help of the only other woman in the group, who screamed, "She's a baby!" She walked through the South Texas wilderness for four days, trying to steer clear of the assailant, who was still with the group, and of the human remains they encountered along the way.

After 2011, the US saw a rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied children like Audelina crossing into the US illegally — most of them from Central America. In spring and summer 2014, the number of children reached a crisis point. During fiscal year 2014 (October 2013-September 2014), 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the US/Mexico border— a 77 percent increase over the previous year.

At the same time, there was a rapid increase in the number of parents arriving with young children. In fact, nearly as many family units (68,445) were apprehended at the border in fiscal year 2014 as unaccompanied children — over three times as many families as were apprehended the previous year. Both of these influxes were concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas/Mexico border.

This overwhelmed the systems the US had in place to deal with migrant children, to the point where Border Patrol had to keep children in temporary facilities on military bases. That was enough to capture the attention of the American public, which for much of summer 2014 was concerned with stopping the "border crisis."

The Obama administration took action to crack down on migrants who had already come, and to work with the Mexican government to keep more from arriving. The strategy has led to potential human rights abuses in Mexico and Central America. But in July and August 2014, the number of children arriving declined rapidly. While the Obama administration refused to declare that the crisis is over, it was certainly in remission. And while the number of migrants rose again in spring 2015, it didn't reach the levels of the previous year — which meant that it didn't overwhelm the system.

Who were the Central American migrants who came into the US in 2014?

From October 1, 2013 to August 31st, 2014, the federal government apprehended approximately 66,000 unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the US.

Many of these children came from Central America:


More detailed data shows that the areas from which the most children came were the most violent parts of these countries.

Most of the unaccompanied minors were teenagers, but many were younger. The number of children under 13 apprehended crossing the border was estimated to triple from 2013 to 2014. In June 2014, Fusion reported that hundreds of toddlers were being held in Border Patrol custody.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately three-quarters of unaccompanied minors were boys. Members of Congress, however, said that girls make up almost 40 percent of unaccompanied minors apprehended this year.

The federal government also apprehended about 55,000 adults with children from October 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. Less is known about the demographics of migrant families than about migrant children, but many or most of them were also believed to come from Central America.

Both children and families overwhelmingly entered the US in the Rio Grande Valley from Mexico.

Why did so many children and families come to the US in 2014?

There's no single answer. But these appear to have been the most important:

  • Violence in Central America. In the early 2010s, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala had some of the highest murder rates in the world. (Honduras, in particular, had the highest murder rate of any country in 2014 — and it was nearly double that of the next-highest.) And the most violent areas of these countries were the ones from which the most children came to the US. Many of them were fleeing from criminal gangs, who recruit teenagers, then go after them and their families if the teenagers refuse.
  • Smuggling. The rapid increase in 2014, in particular, was probably due to an expansion of criminal smuggling networks. Smuggling can be voluntary on the part of the family, or it can be coerced — in which case it's called trafficking.
  • Generous treatment of children under US law. The US gives extra protection to kids who arrive alone in the US. This could have led parents to send their children to take advantage of this. (At the peak of the 2014 crisis, both President Obama and Congress both expressed interest in stripping away some of these protections, but no change to the law was made.) However, reports have indicated that very few of the children themselves were aware that the law treated children differently.
  • Rumors of the US granting "permisos" to single parents. Some reports indicated that parents bringing children to the US thought they would be given "permisos" once they arrived — but didn't understand that the "permiso" was actually a term for a notice to appear in immigration court, not a work permit. A Border Patrol report that leaked in June 2014 said that this was overwhelmingly the biggest cause of migration, but no prior reports had mentioned it.
  • Family reunification. Many of the children who arrived unaccompanied in the US as of 2010 had relatives in the US. Reports from 2014 indicated that a significant fraction of children arriving had parents in the US — but only some of them said that they came to the US to reunite with family
  • Economic opportunity. Regardless of other reasons, immigrants often choose to come to the US in hopes of a better life. A 2014 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees survey of unaccompanied child migrants found that 84 percent of them cited economic opportunity or family reunification as a reason to come to the US (though most of them also cited violence in their home countries).

Violence in Central America could be described as a "push factor" driving children away from Latin America. The others were "pull factors" drawing them to the United States. (As a general rule, smuggling can go either way: voluntary smuggling is essentially a pull factor, but trafficking, or coerced smuggling, is a push factor.)

When Congress and the public were debating the child migrant crisis in summer 2014, the reasons that someone emphasized for why children were coming became a proxy for what he or she thought should be done with the children and families coming to the US. Those who believed that "push factors" (like violence) were driving the migration saw the migrant families as refugees, and advocated for a humanitarian response from the US government. Those who believed that "pull factors" were driving the migration (like reuniting with families) advocated for an enforcement-based response from the government.

One sign push factors mattered in the exodus of children and families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador: other nearby countries — including Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama — saw 712 percent more applications for asylum from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2013 than they had in 2009:


For more about the potential reasons for the rise in child migrants, see here.

Did the Obama administration's immigration policy encourage children to come to the US illegally?

There's no evidence to suggest it did, and plenty of evidence to suggest it didn't.

During the child migrant crisis in 2014, some Republicans blamed the influx of child migrants on the Obama administration's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which gave temporary protection from deportation and work eligibility to some young unauthorized immigrants. One of the two bills passed by the House of Representatives in response to the crisis in August 2014 was a bill to end the DACA program. (Neither bill passed the Senate.)

The Obama administration said that it didn't think DACA was a factor, but officials including Vice President Joe Biden stressed during visits to Central America that children shouldn't come because they wouldn't be eligible for DACA — reinforcing the notion that the two were connected.

However, the influx of unaccompanied children started in the fall of 2011. DACA wasn't announced until June of 2012.

Two separate surveys of unaccompanied migrant children conducted in early 2014 confirmed that extremely few, if any, of them even knew about the deferred action program, and none of them cited it as a reason for them to come. In a survey of 400 child migrants conducted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, only one mentioned the possibility of benefiting from new immigration policies. A survey by a San Diego State University researcher found that fifteen out of 400 migrant children knew that children were treated differently under US law (they were, for reasons unrelated to DACA), but didn't know how.

Later reports, such as an intelligence assessment leaked by Sen. Chuck Grassley and an assessment from the El Paso Intelligence Center, claimed that many, or even most, families came to the US because they believed they'd be able to get "permisos" here. While some assumed this was a reference to DACA, the Grassley report said that the term "permiso" referred to the Notice to Appear in immigration court — not to a work permit.

What happens to children who are caught crossing into the US?

Unaccompanied children who are caught crossing into the US are supposed to stay in the custody of Border Patrol agents for no more than 72 hours. During that time, they're screened by a Border Patrol officer.

Because the government was so overwhelmed by the influx in spring and summer 2014, many of these children were held in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours, or held in intermediate detention centers — some of which were makeshift spaces on military bases. When the number of children decreased at the end of summer 2014, the average amount of time children spent in Border Patrol custody dropped back to under 72 hours.

Children coming from Mexico have to prove to the Border Patrol officer that they fear persecution or trafficking in order to stay. Otherwise, they're returned. In practice, however, many children who were in danger have been sent back to Mexico.

Children who pass the Border Patrol screening, or aren't subjected to it, are sent into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement — part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Once the Office of Refugee Resettlement receives a child, it's responsible for keeping the child in an HHS facility while it finds a relative or family friend who can take the child on. (The 2014 crunch made it difficult for HHS to screen relatives appropriately.) If no relative can be found, the child is placed in long-term foster care.

Meanwhile, the child's immigration case is processed. In some cases, an asylum officer evaluates a child's claim for asylum; in other cases, the child goes through immigration court, where they might receive asylum or request Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (for children who can't be reunited with their families because of "abuse, negligence or neglect").

For a closer look at the way the US handles unaccompanied child migrants, see here.

What happened to families that got caught trying to enter the US in 2014?

US law has a special process for unaccompanied children caught at the border, but not for families. The process for families is similar to the one for anyone else caught at the border.

Families caught at the border are eligible for "expedited removal" — being removed from the country without a trial.

However, if any immigrant has a "credible fear" of returning to his or her home country — which could apply to many of the Central Americans who arrived in 2014 — the government is obligated to give them a hearing to see if they qualify for asylum. So the government issues an order to appear in immigration court on a particular date.

Before June 2014, the government often released families after setting their court dates — sometimes stranding them at bus stops in Arizona. In June, as part of a crackdown targeting recent migrants, the Department of Homeland Security rolled out a plan to detain hundreds of families who were waiting for their hearings. (A permanent family detention center opened in late 2014.) Families who weren't physically detained would be monitored.

The government sent immigration judges and court officials to the detention facilities, to process families' cases and deport them quickly. One Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official told the press that the goal was to deport families within ten or fifteen days. However, families who have been able to get legal counsel in detention, and have been able to pursue asylum claims, are often getting approved for asylum.

When the detention center in Artesia, NM first opened, 4 families were getting deported for every one family who was released from detention (either because they had won asylum or because they'd gone far enough in the process to wait for a later court date). By October 2014, however, that ratio had flipped: 4 families were being released for every one family getting deported.

Only in certain circumstances.

Sometimes, a child comes to the US without legal status because he's fleeing violence in their home countries, or being specifically targeted by criminal gangs. That child (or family) may be eligible for asylum under US law.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimated that around 60 percent of the unaccompanied child migrants entering the US illegally in 2014 were eligible for some kind of international protection, including asylum. Internal DHS estimates indicated that 70 percent of children believed they would be able to stay in the US.

Older data about what actually happened to children who had arrived before 2014, however, indicated that at most, 50 percent of them had been allowed to say.

The process to determine whether immigrants are eligible for legal status is different for families with children, and for unaccompanied children.

Families with children

In order to determine if they're eligible for asylum, families have to go through immigration court proceedings; if the judge determines they don't meet the standard for asylum, they can be deported instead.

During the early 2010s, immigration courts were often so backlogged that these cases can often take years to resolve. In June 2014, in response to the migrant crisis, the Obama Administration established detention centers for migrant families, and sent additional immigration judges and court officers to process cases in those facilities — so that families' cases could be resolved as quickly as possible. These actions raised concerns about due process, but many families succeeded in claiming asylum through the process.

For a closer look at how asylum policy protects Central American migrants, see here.

Unaccompanied children

Unaccompanied children might have their asylum case evaluated by an asylum officer, or may be put into immigration court.

Data from early 2014 showed that very few children were applying for asylum via an asylum officer, and that their approval rates were relatively low.

There's another option for unaccompanied children: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. If immigrant minors can demonstrate to a family-court judge that they can't be reunited with their parents because of "abuse, abandonment, or neglect," they can go to an immigration judge to be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. (Given how dangerous the journey to the US is, a judge could find that just sending a child to the US unaccompanied constitutes "abuse, abandonment, or neglect.") Immigrants with SIJS can immediately apply for green cards.

In immigration court, according to data for children who arrived before 2014, about 50 percent of all children were ultimately allowed to stay — either because they were granted legal status by an immigration judge, or because they were able to qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

Why was the US so overwhelmed by the flood of child migrants in spring and summer 2014?

Because the system was built for 8,000 kids — not 50,000.

According to Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an advocacy organization for unaccompanied immigrant children, the system Congress had in place as of 2014 "was designed for about 6,000 to 8,000 kids a year."

That's borne out by this chart from HHS, which compares the number of immigrant children Border Patrol sent into HHS custody from 2011-2014 to the number of available beds in HHS facilities.

During the peak of the 2014 crisis, children were placed in detention facilities, including some makeshift facilities at military bases and a DHS processing center in Nogales, Arizona. Reporters who were granted access to these facilities said that even under relatively good conditions, the holding centers were still traumatic:

The CBP agents in the building seem to be genuinely compassionate in their interactions with the children. The facility is clean and air-conditioned.

But in essence, it is a juvenile prison camp.

The children, mostly of high-school and junior-high-school age, are housed behind 18-foot-high chain-link fences topped with razor wire...

...most of the children lie motionless on side-by-side mattresses with looks of intense boredom on their faces. Inevitably, given the number of people, it smells of feet and sweat and straw.

The temporary centers were necessary because there was a bottleneck in transferring children to HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement. However, after children were sent to HHS, many more of them were being released to relatives than previously— and being released much more quickly. A report from the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies said that while 65% of children were released to relatives before the surge began in spring 2014, 90% were released to relatives by that summer. Furthermore, some children were being released as soon as "two or three days" after HHS received them.

The separate influx of families also overwhelmed Border Patrol — partly because they already had to deal with the influx of unaccompanied children, and partly because according to law (if maybe not in practice) they couldn't immediately turn back or deport any family that said they had a "credible fear" they'd be harmed if they got sent back to their home country.

Until June 2014, the government simply gave families notices to appear in immigration court and released them. But in summer 2014, the government began to build detention facilities to house hundreds of immigrant families. They stuck to that plan even after the number of children and families apprehended began to plummet in late summer of 2014.

How did the US government treat the children and families who arrived during the migrant crisis?

Unaccompanied children

The federal government increased capacity for long-term foster care for children, and changed the way immigration judges' caseloads were scheduled, so that children and families who had recently arrived in the US could have their cases heard first. And it spent $4 million to provide lawyers for unaccompanied children in immigration court.

Families with children

The government opened detention centers to house hundreds of families: a 700-bed facility in New Mexico, and a new, permanent facility in Dilley, Texas. The government sent immigration judges and court officials to the detention centers to process families' cases as quickly as possible, so that they could be released or deported.

The detention of families raised humanitarian concerns, because of the difficulty of detaining children humanely, and issues with access to lawyers. Lawyers raised concerns that families with valid claims of persecution weren't getting their asylum cases heard.

What did the US government do to prevent children and families from coming to begin with?

In public, US officials focused on attempting to warn families in Central America not to come to the US, or send their children there. Vice President Joe Biden made this clear when he visited Central America in June 2014. The government also paid for an advertising campaign in Central America to educate families about the danger of the journey to the US, and the fact that families are not broadly eligible for legal status.

The expansion of detention for migrant families was also intended to deter more families and children from coming to the US, by "sending a message" that migrants who came to the US would be treated harshly.

Behind the scenes, however, the US assisted the Mexican government's efforts to apprehend migrants on their way to the US — which is probably one of the main reasons that the migrant crisis ended so suddenly in late summer of 2014.

The US also sent a new $250 million aid package to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This included $9 million for "repatriation" of children and families deported or returned to their home countries, as well as several country-specific programs to help reduce violence.

When did the child migrant crisis end, and why?

In August 2014, it may not have "ended" (depending on your definition) but it certainly went in remission — at least as measured by children crossing into the US.

Apprehensions of unaccompanied children

The flow of children into the US fell off more quickly than it had started. (Department of Homeland Security)

Even fewer children were apprehended in September than in August: 2,400 children. In both months, fewer children were apprehended in 2014 than were apprehended at the same point in 2013.

Homeland Security officials warned that in spring 2015, large numbers of children and families could begin to come across the US/Mexico border again. For that reason, they continued to expand their capacities for family detention. But 2015 flows were a fraction of their 2014 total.

Reports indicated that one of the most important factors in the stemming of the flow into the US in late summer 2014 was that the Mexican government started taking a much more aggressive role in interdicting children as they crossed through Mexico to the US:

Mexico has been aggressive in apprehending kids riding "la Bestia," the freight train that many children ride through much of Mexico. (In the long term, there's a plan in the works to speed up "la Bestia" so that it's too fast for migrants to hop onto.) Furthermore, Mexico has set up immigration checkpoints in towns closer to the border - the mirror image of the internal checkpoints in the southwestern US.

Anecdotal reports from NGOs in Central America indicate that Mexico's efforts are reducing the number of migrants. One advocate in the United States said that he's heard reports that "what used to be 2 buses a day of kids coming back from Mexico (to one Central American NGO) are now 8 buses a day."

To read more about possible reasons for the decline in child migrants crossing the border in late summer and fall 2014, see here.

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