Released 13 June 2015  By Larissa Converti - Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Young voices from the border: Fear and unaccompanied migrant children
Posted: 08 Jun 2015
Larissa Converti - Council on Hemispheric Affairs
“Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”
– President Barack Obama
The past few years have brought a sharp upturn in the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States, and most have come from Mexico and the Central American countries which make up the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Of the 15,647 unaccompanied minors apprehended by U.S. authorities from October 2014 to March of this year, 5,572 were from Mexico, 5,465 from Guatemala, 2,788 from El Salvador, and 1,549 from Honduras.
Of the children apprehended in the past two years, more than three quarters were caught in Texas, crossing the Rio Grande. The majority of these are children, who are usually between ages 15 and 17, but younger ones, and especially girls, have been arriving in increasing numbers within the last year. In fact, new data by Pew Research indicates a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children ages 12 and younger caught at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year compared with the year before.
With crossing the border comes high costs. Young migrants, as well as most adult migrants, are shepherded by “coyotes,” or human smugglers, who are paid, according to Francisco Pacheco, East Coast Coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), “anywhere between $5,000 to $8,000 dollars per person. The deal made between the coyote and migrant,” Pacheco reported, “is referred to as ‘el combo.’” Under this contract, the coyote will make up to three attempts for the migrant to reach the U.S. border.” Now, with increased U.S. border enforcement, the price of human smuggling is rising.
Yet people keep coming, driven in large measure by conditions of poverty that continue to plague much of the region. Half of Central America’s population exists below the poverty line, and in rural areas two out of three people are poor.
Desperate, family members attempt to migrate to the United States to earn money and send it home. Often, after some time has passed, the children they left in their wake travel north.
Central American Kids get Court Dates — Mexican Kids get the Boot.
Although unaccompanied minors from Central America and Mexico may face similar circumstances and motivations for migrating, the two groups are unquestionably treated differently once they set foot on U.S. soil. According to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, children coming from Central America have been given opportunities to apply for asylum, while significant numbers of Mexican children have been summarily deported back to Mexico.
Why the Distinction?
In 2008 the U.S. Congress passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to protect child migrants from “non-contiguous countries” from being pushed across the border and back into the clutches of the trafficking networks. The act exempted children arriving from these countries from immediate deportation. Instead, these children were transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugees and Resettlement and given a future court date to make a case for remaining in the U.S.
The three criteria in determining if a child would be exempt from deportation are: 1.) whether the child has been a victim of severe forms of abuse, 2.) if he/she would be returned to mistreatment if deported; and 3.) if the child lacks the ability to make an independent decision regarding his/her application for admission to the United States.
For youths from non-contiguous countries, the U.S. Border Patrol has 72 hours to transfer children to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). But for Mexican children, U.S. officials are given just 48 hours to process the repatriations back across the border.
Moreover, there has been a pattern of expediting the process of deporting Mexican children, greatly reducing their chances of obtaining relief by applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) visas under U.S. law, an immigration classification that allows abused, abandoned, or neglected children to immediately apply for lawful permanent resident status. Unfortunately, Mexican children, in contrast to Central American children, rarely are able to have contact with the Office of Refugees and Resettlement.
Screening is supposed to be performed to determine whether refugees have a credible claim for being granted permission to stay in the country, but U.S. border agents do not always review circumstances of each detainee with care.
Worse, immigrants without legal status do not have the right to government-appointed legal counsel in any removal proceedings. Most unaccompanied children appear in court without a lawyer, where their young age and inability to speak English proficiently preclude them from really comprehending what is happening to them. The U.S. legal system appears ill-equipped to offer adequate legal protection to youthful migrants. As a result, the present system is failing to protect vulnerable child populations.
Most U.S. shelters are filled with Central American youths, individuals who can stay in protective custody for months—and in some cases, years—until their court date arrives. Of course, staying in the shelters can be rough; while they are supposed to provide safe and humane conditions, the American Immigration Council reported 809 abuse complaints against the Border Patrol from January 2009 through January 2012.
Some of the youthful migrants are picked up by family. But, “because of [the vast legal] backlog, which is growing greatly with the recent influx, in essence a kid released tomorrow could stay in the U.S. for up to three years waiting for their court date,” explains NPR’s Carrie Kahn.
When the day in court arrives, many unaccompanied migrant children often fail to show up for their court dates; the lengthy period of time between apprehension and hearing leads some to drift off, moving away to live with family members already in the country. Some skip their court date due to the threat of a negative outcome and immediate deportation.
Juan Osuna, Director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review at the Department of Justice, reported that 46 percent of all children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, fail to be present at their hearings. And as these children fade into the shadows, they lose any real opportunity of gaining the legal status to remain in the United States.
Push and Pull
Violence is undeniably one of the most important reason people decide to leave their homes in the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Homicide rates in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are, respectively, ranked the first, fourth, and fifth highest in the world.
One migrant from El Salvador, 26-year old Rolan, a manager of a Mexican restaurant in Northern Virginia, had a typical experience. At the age of 17, Rolan pursued the dangerous trek across the U.S.-Mexican border in the hope of attaining a better education. But apprehensions drove him too, as gang predations near his home led him to flee his homeland.
“Families live in fear that if they became too successful in their businesses or work, the gangs will obtain information and threaten them at their house,” Rolan said. “For kids,” he continued, “if they are studying, the gangs will tell them not to study and try to force them to join the gangs. If they refuse, then that just leads to something worse.”
The dire economic conditions of rural people in Central America and Mexico serve as another important push factor, as the region’s relative lack of jobs leads many adults to come to the U.S. in search of work. As a consequence, much of the migration of young children is motivated by the desire to be reunited with family members who now work in the United States. In fact, 36 percent of all unaccompanied children surveyed prior to 2014 had at least one parent already in the United States.
Acting on Misleading Information
Many families were under the impression that it had become lawful for children to migrate to the U.S. Interviews by Border Patrol agents with young migrants and their families revealed that there was a commonly held perception that the United States had relaxed its policies and would grant them permisos, or free passes, to stay.
One migrant, Carmen Avila, 26, who came with her 4-year old son, said, “I heard in Guatemala that people were caught by immigration, but then they let them go and gave them a permit. The word got around and that’s why so many people are coming.”
(....Continue Part 2)