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Thousands of children are fleeing Central America to Texas — alone

Border Patrol encounters a girl stranded on the US side of the Rio Grande.
Border Patrol encounters a girl stranded on the US side of the Rio Grande.
US Customs and Border Protection on Flickr

Over the past few years, thousands of children under the age of 18 have fled Central America, hitched rides on top of trains through Mexico, and crossed into the United States on their own. On the way, they often suffer sexual assault or violence.

The US government is ill-equipped to deal with this influx of child migrants from Central America into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas (where most of them arrive). Different federal agencies are responsible for taking the children in, finding housing for them, and processing their immigration cases. But, as the number of children crossing into the country from Central America has exploded — rising fivefold since 2011 — those agencies haven't received the resources to keep up.

That has created all sorts of problems. The government is opening up a series of emergency shelters on Air Force bases to accommodate the "surge." Meanwhile, federal agencies are supposed to find caregivers for the children who are apprehended at the border — but they can't always even ensure that they're handing the children to caring relatives, rather than potential traffickers.

The situation has reached a crisis point, and policymakers still can't agree on how to fix it. This Monday, President Obama asked Congress for an extra $1.4 billion to handle the rise in child migrants. He also announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would coordinate a new multi-agency response.

Congress, meanwhile, is divided on the issue. Two Republican-led House Committees are promising to hold hearings on the topic. One, the House Homeland Security Committee, is trying to figure out what's causing the influx in the first place. The other, the House Judiciary Committee, is holding hearings to blame the rise of child migrants on the Obama administration's immigration policies.

Ultimately, what makes the problem so difficult is that children aren't just coming to the United States. They're also coming from their home countries in Central America. And to understand the crisis, it's necessary to look at both ends of the journey.

Why so many kids are crossing the US border alone

There have always been some child immigrants who entered the United States without their parents. On occasion, the United States has even assisted in bringing kids over — as during Operation Peter Pan after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba.

Yet the recent influx in children from Central America — particularly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — is something the government didn't plan or even anticipate. Back in fiscal year 2011, roughly 4,059 kids from those countries entered the United States unaccompanied. By fiscal year 2013, that had risen to 21,537 kids.

And the number keeps rising: The Obama administration claims that 47,017 unaccompanied children, from all countries, were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the first eight months of fiscal year 2014. Many of those children were Mexican migrants who were turned back at the border, rather than allowed to stay in the US. But it's still nearly double the number of children Border Patrol agents had found this time last year.

So why is this happening? Immigration experts tend to point to possible "push factors" — reasons for migrants to leave their home countries — and "pull factors," or reasons for migrants to come to (in this case) the United States:

1) Children are being "pushed" by violence in Central America. Megan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that works with unaccompanied migrant children, says that the children her group works with point to violence in their home countries as the primary reason they left. "They're telling us stories of gangs and criminal elements coming into their communities and forcing them to join a gang or some kind of criminal activity, and when they say no, they and their family members are subject to threats and violence," she says. "It's a refugee-like situation."

Indeed, the children coming to the United States appear to be increasingly more vulnerable — implying it's just getting less and less possible to stay in their home countries. Over the past few years, the average age of these unaccompanied children has dropped. And a larger proportion are girls — even though, McKenna says, "it's widely known they'll be a victim of sexual abuse" during the journey through Mexico. "It points to the sheer desperation of these kids in trying to leave their home country."

2) Children are being "pulled" by a desire or need to be reunited with family. Another reason so many children are coming to the United States — they have family here. According to a recent Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees survey,over a third of Central American children who had crossed the border alone had one or both parents in the United States. It's typical for migrant families to send children once other relatives have gotten settled in the US, but when their relatives here are unauthorized immigrants, the kids have to come illegally — and dangerously — too.


A family crosses from Guatemala to Mexico. Omar Torres/AFP/Getty

3) Children are being "pulled" by lenient US policy — particularly a 2008 law by Congress. There are also more controversial theories. This week, for instance, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee released a statement arguing that the Obama administration's overly lenient policies on immigration "have led to a surge of minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border."

The evidence doesn't bear this out. For instance, Republicans have pointed to a policy by the Obama administration to defer deportation for certain youths in the United States. Yet that policy wasn't enacted until 2012 — eight months before the current surge of child migrants began in October 2011. (That policy also doesn't apply to new immigrants.)

It is true that the US government treats child migrants who arrive at the border more leniently than adults — but that's the result of a law passed by Congress in 2008, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. When children who come unaccompanied aren't getting deported, it might end up inspiring more children to come. But even here, the evidence is ambiguous. One researcher from San Diego State University found that only 15 of the 400 migrants she interviewed even knew that US immigration law treated unaccompanied children differently.

It's going to take a lot more time and research to determine exactly what is driving these children to come to the US. But before the government can get down to the root causes of child migration, it needs to be able to cope with its effects. And right now, the recent surge has left the US government overwhelmed.

Why the US government can't deal with child refugees

When an unaccompanied immigrant child enters the United States at a border crossing — or enters through the desert and is apprehended  — Border Patrol interviews the child and conducts a screening. After that, the child is taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, whose job it is to find a home for the child.

In about 90 percent of cases, says McKenna, officials are able to place the child with a parent, relative, or family friend. (In the other 10 percent of cases, the child is placed in foster care.)

But just releasing a child into the custody of a "relative" doesn't mean the child is out of harm's way. Back in the 1990s, the (now-defunct) Immigration and Naturalization Services found that many unauthorized Chinese immigrants were being unintentionally released into the care of relatives who turned out to be part of smuggling networks — who would, in turn, extort immigrants' parents for payment.

It's not clear that the same thing is happening today with unaccompanied child migrants, but it points to the importance of strict screening procedures — and many agencies may be too strained by the influx to do proper screening. Nora Skelly, who works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says that HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement has rules to fingerprint and screen any relative before releasing a child. But she's heard of cases in which HHS loosens those requirements so that kids can be released more quickly.

Meanwhile, the child's case works its way through the immigration court system — which is already understaffed, and where cases can take years. Children don't have government-provided lawyers in immigration court, and they and their families can have difficulty navigating the system — or just stop showing up to hearings. What's more, during that time, the child's guardian could be at risk of deportation, since custodial relatives are often unauthorized.


An immigrant says goodbye to his 15-year-old son before being deported. Scott Olson/Getty

Does anyone know how to fix the problem?

US policymakers are just now turning serious attention to the issue of unaccompanied immigrant children. But the exact causes of the recent influx are still disputed or unclear. Meanwhile, the burden on the existing system is extremely clear.

That requires a certain amount of triage: dealing with the children who are already coming in now, and addressing the bigger issue of how to reduce the influx afterwards. And policymakers addressing the former agree that means providing more money for the agencies that take care of the child migrants.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee gave $77 million to Immigrations and Custom Enforcement to process the extra migrants — ten times more than the agency wanted. But that's likely just the start. The Obama administration has asked for an extra $1.4 billion for a variety of agencies dealing with the issue — the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and FEMA.

That much money could reduce the strain on federal agencies. It could allow them to reinstate some of the safeguards they've had to cut thanks to lack of resources: HHS, for example, could make sure that they're conducting all proper security checks before releasing children to any relatives. And some advocates have ideas for further reforms to protect child migrants. McKenna suggests that children who are apprehended should be interviewed by HHS or a non-governmental organization rather than Border Patrol (since being interviewed by an officer with a uniform and gun is "not ideal" for children who have just made a dangerous journey to the United States).

But the Obama administration's new "coordinated response" already includes one big oversight — it doesn't include the Department of Justice, which runs the overbooked and underfunded immigration court system. So even if Congress does approve the $1.4 billion in funding, the court backlogs could still persist for years.

Ideally, says McKenna, the government would also increase funding for children to have legal representation in immigration courts. "Kids with attorneys are much more likely to stay within the system," says McKenna. Kids without attorneys, by contrast, can get confused or overwhelmed, and stop showing up to hearings. For now, however, it's not clear whether that's a problem the new response can fix.


A child looks through the border fence into the US. John Moore/Getty

The hardest problem — reducing the influx in the first place

Any long-term solution to the problem, policymakers agree, would reduce the flow of children making the dangerous journey from Central America to the United States in the first place. But that's going to require figuring out, and agreeing on, what the root causes of the influx are.

If it's true that US policy is luring children to make the dangerous passage through the Texas desert, the US can fix that easily — by changing the policy.

Doris Meissner, who ran the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the 1990s, says it's possible that more children really are coming to the United States because they believe they'll be processed more leniently. In that case, Congress may have to change the 2008 law that created that process. But Meissner acknowledges that it's a tough situation: the existing law might have unintended consequences because it's too lenient, but it's hard for policymakers to pass a new law that makes the system tougher on children.

Ultimately, any long-term solution has to address not only the "pull factors" that bring children here, but the "push factors" that drive them out of their own countries.

The federal government appears to understand this, but there aren't many good ideas for how to deal with it. Last week, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, suggested to Congress that the US government could launch a public-awareness campaign in Central American countries to advertise the dangers of migrating to the United States.

The problem? Meissner says that "there is a long history" of campaigns like this, but they never actually work. "People make the calculus to do this," she says, referring to the child migrants. "They know what the dangers are. But they believe that they will be able to avoid them — which is kind of a human belief."

What's more likely to work, Meissner believes, is for the United States to figure out how to assist Central American governments so that they can provide more safety and stability for their citizens. (The Obama administration seemed to acknowledge this when it included the State Department in its new task force.) "We have a real interest in these governments succeeding," says Meissner. The reforms that will strengthen Central American governments enough so that children growing up in the region can stay in their home countries, she says, "are not exotic things. They're the fundamentals of basic governance."

Unfortunately, this also happens to be the hardest policy option — since so much is out of the United States' control. The calculus of push and pull factors that have led thousands of children to leave their homes for the Rio Grande Valley just isn't something the US government can solve on its own.

Further reading:

  • This Mother Jones article is a great look at the issue, and takes a closer look at the federal shelters that house child migrants.
  • The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees conducted a study earlier this year interviewing 400 Central American children and teenagers who'd come to the United States.

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