Basic Facts about Plight of Central American Children
Why are so many unaccompanied children and mothers with children coming to the U.S.? Why the sudden surge? Who/what created the problem?
What is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border reflects humanitarian crises that have been occurring on the ground in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. These countries are struggling with what is essentially an undeclared regional war, with murder rates nearly 20 times higher than that of the United States, street gangs controlling wide swaths of neighborhoods throughout the region, government corruption, and political instability. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/09/central-america-child-migrants-us-border-crisis).
“For many people, the choice is to flee or to die,” says Carlos Paz, director of the San Pedro Sula office of the church organization Cáritas. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/09/central-america-child-migrants-us-border-crisis ).
Consider 16-year-old Josefina from El Salvador. “The head of the gang that controlled her neighborhood wanted Josefina to be his girlfriend and threatened to kidnap her or to kill one of her family members if she didn’t comply,” reports the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Children on the Run. “Josefina knew another girl from her community who had become the girlfriend of a gang member and had been forced to have sex with all the gang members. Josefina didn’t want this for herself. Once the gang started harassing her, she didn’t feel safe, so she stopped going to school and stayed at home until her family was able to make arrangements for her to travel to the U.S.”
In 2013, The UNHCR interviewed Josefina and about 400 other children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who were arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. It found that 60 percent of the children had legitimate asylum claims and claims to international protection. These children were not safe in their home countries and were not being protected by their governments.
Despite the horrific conditions that children and families endure to make the journey, the majority of refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala stated they would still make the trip, even with the knowledge of how difficult the journey was, reports the Women’s Refugee Commission. “As one child explained, ‘If you stay you will die, if you leave, you might…either way it’s better to try.’”
Is this a new problem?
No. There has been a steady stream of children and families fleeing their countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to escape violence since 2008. While the number of children and families fleeing to the United States has risen dramatically this year and is projected to reach over 90,000 people by the end of the fiscal year, the regional crisis that has forced internal and international displacement of thousands from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has been underway for several years. Flows of children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador began to double in 2011, jumping from approximately 6,000 kids in 2008 to 52,000 thus far in the 2014 fiscal year.
Are people going to other countries, in addition to the U.S.?
Yes, children and families are seeking asylum throughout the region, not just in the United States. According to United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asylum applications in countries other than the United States have risen more than 700% since 2008; Nicaragua alone saw a 238% increase last year, according to Leslie Velez, Senior Protection Officer, Washington Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in 7/9/2014 press call). Mexico also serves as a country of asylum in the region, and in 2013 they received 5500 unaccompanied children fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
What is required by U.S. law in regard to unaccompanied children? How much time does the process take for a child? What happens to the child — who takes care of the child, where does the child live, etc. — during the process?
The United States has a legal and moral responsibility to protect these children, and it must serve as a model to the world in treating these children with compassion.
Unaccompanied children who are apprehended by U.S. immigration officials must be placed in the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Once there, in addition to meeting their basic physical needs, children must be screened for protection needs, including determining whether children face persecution, torture, or are victims of human trafficking. Children may be released into foster care. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ucs/about
While ORR maintains a legal access program, with the rapid expansion of the system a breakdown in legal services is resulting. Without access to representation, children face little chance of understanding how to file an asylum claim or seek other legal protection in the United States.
What is the difference between an “immigrant” and a “refugee”?
A “refugee” is a particular category of “immigrant” who is seeking to enter another country out of fear of persecution. International law defines a “refugee” as a person who is outside their country of nationality and is afraid to return to that country or avail themselves of that country’s protection owing to a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The children and families involved are refugees.
The refugee protection system emerged following the horrific failure of the international community to protect people fleeing the Holocaust to ensure that people fleeing persecution would not be turned back at the border before being given the chance to explain why they needed protection.
Has U.S. immigration policy caused the problem?
U.S. immigration policy has neither caused nor fueled this crisis. Children and families from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are fleeing the violence that has resulted from the breakdown in the rule of law in their countries. They are seeking safety elsewhere in their own countries and in countries throughout the region, including the United States.
To date, the Obama administration’s declaration of this as a serious humanitarian situation is correct and appropriate. What is happening at the border is not an immigration “problem” that will be helped by deployment of more enforcement resources to apprehend illegal border crossers or by weakening international protection systems. While any issue of migration always raises concerns about impact on US immigration policy, the focus on the border issue without recognizing the humanitarian obligations of this regional refugee crisis fails to address the problem.
Is it true that unaccompanied children from Mexico and from Canada are treated differently by the U.S. than those from other countries. If so, why?
While Mexican children also may present international protection concerns, including trafficking, domestic violence, and violence at the hands of criminal armed actors, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children seeking protection in the United States has not increased as a result of this crisis, and remains steady at approximately 3% of all unaccompanied alien children in US custody (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ucs/about). As citizens of contiguous countries, however, Mexican and Canadian children are exempted from U.S. law requiring that unaccompanied children be placed in ORR custody.
Why can’t the children be immediately deported?
These children, like all people seeking protection, must be given the chance to be heard. The message from the Obama administration cannot be “don’t come, you’ll be sent back” without violating our obligations to ensure that everyone who seeks asylum from persecution or protection from torture or human trafficking.
If a child is deported and has to return to his/her home country, how does the child get there? How is the child reconnected with his or her family? Who is responsible for a child once that child has been deported?
Children, like all others deported from the United States, generally are returned to the capital cities of their countries. The United States takes no particular steps to protect children upon their deportation.