Worth the Risk? Consider the factors behind the surge of unaccompanied children.

derek-200px.jpgThe current crisis of “unaccompanied children” has reframed our public discourse on immigration. Since last October, U.S. authorities have apprehended an estimated 52,000 young people crossing the border from Mexico without a parent or responsible adult. This is twice as many in the first half of this year as the total number in 2013, and three times the number in 2011. Add an additional 39,000 women with children taken into custody this year, and it is clear why the numbers have overwhelmed an immigration system not prepared to take care of and process so many children.

These children, crossing the border in places like Tucson, Arizona, and Laredo and McAllen, Texas, mostly arrive in desperate condition. Hungry, tired, and scared, they willingly reach out to authorities for help, hoping to find the U.S. to be the land of opportunity they—or their parents—imagined it to be when they set out from home. The children, hardly able to plead their case or fully explain their circumstances, have found their reception far from inviting however. Stories of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and abuse in the government’s temporary holding facilities first drew public attention to the crisis of these unaccompanied minors.  But it was the scene, in the days surrounding the Fourth of July, of the mayor and angry citizens of Murrieta, California driving back buses of women and children headed for a federal processing center that was as shocking to many viewers as it was surely distressing to the young migrants in limbo. Is this how the U.S., founded as a nation of immigrants, would now treat these “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Concern for the children has been met by a mix of sympathy and criticism for the border control and immigration system that obviously lack the resources and capacity to adequately handle the situation. As the numbers crossing the border continue to increase, the debate over immigration has swirled inside Washington, and across the social divides separating Americans’ opinions and perceptions of the situation. Recognizing both the urgent human needs at stake, as well as the political risks involved in responding to the crisis, the Obama Administration has scrambled to find solutions to what has become as much as a humanitarian catastrophe as a legal dilemma over the fate of the unaccompanied children. 

A Faith Response

In the absence of meaningful immigration reform, which the UCC has long supported, and with a system focused more on homeland security than reconciling policy with humanitarian concerns and migrant/immigrant realities, what is being done on this side of the border to address the problem is piecemeal. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is tasked with caring for the children and families while they are awaiting the immigration process, has sought additional funds and partners to address needs for things like food, supervision and legal aid. Some children are being moved to shelters in places like Dallas County, Texas that have offered assistance. Meanwhile many churches and aid groups have also responded with resources and hospitality.

In the Rio Grande Valley around McAllen, Texas, Catholic Charities has coordinated efforts in the faith community to provide food, clothing, medicine and other goods. United Church News reports that churches in the Southern California-Nevada Conference participated in a faith delegation organized to assess the conditions of children being housed at the naval base in Ventura, County. Other UCC congregations along the border and across the country are also collecting donations of baby supplies, toys and other children’s needs.

President Obama’s Response: Pros & Cons

Beyond meeting basic needs, though, the response of the Obama administration has been mixed. On the one hand the President is using the occasion to push through much-needed immigration fixes by executive action, while on the other hand he says the children should be sent back home. Faced with renewed opposition from Congress and dim prospects for comprehensive immigration reform happening during upcoming campaign seasons, President Obama promised on June 30 to take executive action on approving additional resources for the border and to delay deportations and seek legal remedies for many undocumented workers. Given his willingness to ease deportation policies generally, President Obama’s stated commitment to proceed with deporting the unaccompanied children has seemed contrary to reform advocates.

To evaluate the administration’s reasoning in turning back these children, we need to understand the factors on the other side of the border creating the flow of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. The administration has asked for $2 billion in emergency funds to increase the resources to speed up immigration processing. While this may lessen the time the children wait in limbo, the President’s intention is to care for the children only temporarily, and then send them back home. “Do not send your children to the borders,” President Obama announced to parents in Latin America. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.” A portion of the President’s request will go toward advertising that message across Latin America in an attempt to prevent the flow of child migrants to the U.S. border.

The administration believes that to accommodate the children in the U.S. would only further the perception that it is permissible to send them, and encourage more parents to make the decision to send their children on the dangerous journey. It is true that the journey is long and dangerous. Roughly three-quarters of the unaccompanied minors come from Central America—mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and the rest are from Mexico. Many are sent out on one mode of transportation or another, or in the hire of smugglers, but then quickly find themselves at the mercy of circumstances they encounter along the way. Exploitation, hunger, violence and trafficking are frequent threats. The decision for families to send their children alone on such a long journey is surely difficult, and yet must be worth the risks even knowing the limited chance of success.

Why is this happening?

So what factors are driving families to make this hard choice? Immigration into the U.S. should always be seen in the context of shifting global migration patterns. The root causes of these changing migration patterns in Central America are extreme poverty, violence, and rising gang activity. Data from the Migration Policy Institute show the number of people fleeing Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador has risen dramatically since 2010. In particular, the number of Central Americans migrating to the U.S. has spiked up, with the U.S. Border Patrol reporting apprehensions of non-Mexican immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has nearly tripled since 2011.  Local gangs and transnational cartels fighting over territory, trade routes and markets for drugs, guns and increasing human trafficking have fueled a rise in extreme violence from Mexico into Central America. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Study on Homicide, while Latin America has only 8% of the world’s population, in 2012 it accounted for nearly one-third of homicides world-wide, making it the world’s “most violent region.” And while 13 of the top 20 homicide rates in the world are in Latin America, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala rounding out the top five.

At its most recent gathering, General Synod passed a resolution calling on the churches of the United Church of Christ to respond to violence and human rights violations in Honduras in a spirit of solidarity, and to hold the people of Honduras in prayer. This epidemic of violence is set against the backdrop of systemic poverty, the impact of the global economic recession, and a lack of political stability and sufficient rule of law to mitigate against the crime and despair.  In a November, 2013 report Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCB) concluded that “generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness.”

Moreover, this violence is a threat to children in particular. The UCCB continues: “violence and coercion, including extortion, kidnapping, threats, and coercive and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity are perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations and gangs have become part of everyday life in all these countries, exerting control over communities.” In short, as risky as the journey to the U.S. is, staying home is a greater risk to these children. The President’s position that the journey is too dangerous ignores the reality that families believe the potential of being recruited or killed by gangs at home is even worse.

Effectively preventing the surge of unaccompanied children fleeing Mexico and Central America requires more than the President’s warning that if they come they will be sent back home. Stemming the tide of children requires an increase in investment in human development throughout Latin America and trade and economic reforms that benefit communities rather than companies. It requires funding projects that protect women and children and fight human trafficking. Prevention calls upon the U.S. to do more to strengthen government institutions and promote the rule of law throughout the hemisphere, and it suggests we provide greater emphasis on nurturing violence prevention in schools, homes and communities, rather than enabling the proliferation of guns and weapons that too easily arm the gangs and cartels that commit violence.

For the children already in the U.S., the threats in Central American countries is so pervasive that the United Nations Refugee Agency has determined that migrants fleeing violence in the countries, including 58% of unaccompanied minors, should be regarded as refugees; they join others in advising that the children therefore be eligible for asylum in the United States. Caring for the unaccompanied children and offering them asylum, while striving to address the root causes of violence and poverty that compel families to undertake the dangerous journey to the U.S., may prove to be less costly over time, and certainly more sustainable in preventing continued migration of children and families in the future.

Lift Your Voice

Take Action: Call on your Representative today to urge the House Appropriations Committee to approve and increase the $1.9 billion that the Senate subcommittee recommends for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to help these children.

Volunteer: The UCC Immigration Task Force has a number of suggested ways for local congregations to engage in this work.

Learn more: Visit our UCC page with resources on unaccompanied children.

Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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