Are “failed U.S. policies” to blame for the rise in unaccompanied Central American migrant children?
“[T]he current surge is far more than a humanitarian crisis resulting from violence and economic failures in Central America. The perception of eventual legal status has been generated through your Administrative actions.”
— Letter to President Obama from 34 Republican members of Congress, July 2, 2014
The border between Texas and Mexico has seen a big recent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This July 2 letter, circulated by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), seeks to blame the Obama administration for the crisis, citing “failed policies that encourage young individuals to put themselves in peril, leave their home countries, and make a long and dangerous journey to enter our country illegally.”
This letter does not provide any substantial evidence to back up what have become immigration hardliners’ talking points on the failures of U.S. policies. Though evidence strongly suggests that violence is a major “push factor,” the 34 legislators’ letter instead insists that the policies spurring Central Americans to send children northward are:
- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an administrative change that President Barack Obama implemented in June 2012. DACA came after Congress failed to pass the “Dream Act,” legislation that would have given permanent residency to children who arrived in the United States as minors and received college degrees or performed military service. Under DACA, young undocumented people who have lived in the United States since 2007 and meet the “Dream Act” standards may live and work in the United States, although they do not get permanent resident status.
- The Obama administration’s expressed support for immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate in June 2013, but has stalled in the House. The bill would have created a “path to citizenship” for some undocumented people in the United States.
- The March 2014 White House announcement that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would review its deportation procedures. In this announcement, President Obama “emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”
It’s unlikely that Central American families are paying such close attention to discussions of administrative changes within the U.S. executive branch. Even leaving this aside, there are at least four reasons why the House members’ letter’s claims are inaccurate.
- The administrative changes cited in the letter had not yet occurred when the so-called “surge” of unaccompanied minors began.
Border Patrol statistics, depicted above, show that arrivals of unaccompanied Central American children began increasing during U.S. fiscal year 2012, which ran from October 2011 to September 2012. DACA was not announced until June 2012. Immigration reform legislation had not yet been proposed, and the review of deportation procedures was far off. In fact, in 2012 the Obama administration broke the United States’ single-year record for deportations of undocumented foreign citizens (409,849 people): hardly a welcoming message for would-be migrants.
- It’s not just minors. Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran adults are leaving too. And the exodus is going to other countries.
In 2011, Border Patrol apprehended 46,997 citizens of countries “other than Mexico”—the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—near the Mexico border. So far this year (as of June 15), it has apprehended 181,724: on pace to register a three-year increase of 450 percent.
The United States may be the main destination, but several countries are seeing a similar rise in fleeing Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. Between 2008 and 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports, the number of those countries’ citizens applying for asylum in nearby Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama rose by 712 percent.
The post-2011 rise in Central American migration, and the rise in asylum claims elsewhere, indicate that violence is the preponderant factor. Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, especially Honduras, saw big increases in violent crime during the second half of the 2000s; by the 2010s these had reached levels higher than those of pre-“surge” Iraq. Gang and organized crime activity—assaults, kidnapping, extortion, rape, forced recruitment—touches nearly all the population, particularly youth. With police and justice systems near collapse amid resource scarcity and unpunished corruption, these countries’ citizens are left utterly unprotected by their states.
- There is no “surge” of unaccompanied Mexican minors.
In 2009, Border Patrol apprehended 16,114 unaccompanied Mexican children, a figure that dwarfed the 3,304 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children it reported that year. Even as the number of Central American children shot upward in 2012, the number of Mexican children did not. In 2014, apprehensions of Mexican minors are on pace to match 2013 levels (about 17,250), a 7 percent increase over 2009. By contrast, 2014 apprehensions of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran minors are on pace to nearly triple 2013 levels, and to exceed 2009 apprehensions by over 1,500 percent.
Why are arrivals of unaccompanied Mexican minors relatively flat? One is less intense violence: Mexico saw a sharp increase in violent crime since the mid-2000s, but it is concentrated in a few areas. The country’s overall homicide rate today is only about a quarter as high as Honduras’s. Another is that the United States has repatriation agreements with Mexico, which include Mexican government security guarantees, that make returning unaccompanied minors a very rapid process.
- While violence and poverty are the main drivers, something did happen in late 2013 and early 2014 to increase still further the rate of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States.
In a sense, there have been two increases in arrivals of unaccompanied children. One increase began at the beginning of 2012, most likely driven by the sharp rise in violent crime in the Northern Triangle. The next, even sharper, increase began early this year.
The two trendlines are evident in this graph depicting month-by-month numbers of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to which other U.S. authorities must turn over apprehended minors within 72 hours. It appears in a June 23 Congressional Research Service report.
2013, like 2012, saw an accelerating increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children. Flight from violence, including specific threats from MS-13, Barrio 18, and other criminal organizations, was likely the most significant cause. There were larger-than-normal seasonal increases in migration (and thus apprehensions) after January 2012 and January 2013. But the increase after January 2014 was even steeper. The trendline took an entirely different shape: that of a hockey stick.
Nobody knows what happened about six months ago to cause this sharp increase. There was no dramatic reported worsening of Central America’s already severe violent crime or poverty rates. There is no evidence that Central Americans suddenly came to view DACA (which only benefits people in the United States before 2007) or the stalled U.S. immigration reform debate as “green lights” to send their children northward.
One possibility is that the “hockey stick” was triggered by word spreading among the Central American population that the children who arrived since 2012 were not being detained and quickly deported. (Smugglers looking for customers may have helped spread this information.) Instead, after receiving “notices to appear” in immigration court, they were being released to—and thus reunited with—family members.
This has happened not because of DACA or immigration reform, but in accordance with an anti-human trafficking law that the U.S. Congress unanimously approved, and President George W. Bush signed into law, in December 2008. Section 235(b) of the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act” states that:
- Unaccompanied children from “non-contiguous countries” (that is, all countries other than Canada and Mexico) must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement must see that they are “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
- Placing a child in a “secure facility” is only called for “if a suitable family member is not available to provide care.”
- “To the greatest extent practicable,” children are to have counsel represent them in legal proceedings, which may include applications for protected status. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that many Central American children fleeing violence may meet the criteria for refugee status.
These legal proceedings take time, especially now that the system adjudicating such cases is overwhelmed. As a result, even if their status is never legalized and they end up eventually being deported, migrant children may end up spending a year or two living with parents or other close relatives who had come to the United States earlier.
That would mean a year or two in which parents need not worry about their child being killed, raped, or recruited by gangs. A year or two in which the child can eat three meals per day, attend school, and face at least a slim possibility of remaining in the United States. It is easy to imagine why a parent or other close relative would find this attractive enough to scrape together as much as US$10,000 to pay a smuggler’s fee.
That so many parents would leave children behind in the first place is a direct result of U.S. policy. Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is now difficult and dangerous, after a large border security buildup that began in the 1990s and intensified in the 2000s. Before then, parents who migrated to the United States to earn money as undocumented workers could expect to go home periodically and see their children. Now, they do not attempt it because the likelihood of returning to the United States afterward is so slim. As a result, migrant parents in the United States go many years without seeing their children.
A child who was left behind while an infant or toddler 10-15 years ago is of prime gang recruitment age today, and parents’ desperation to be reunited is probably greater. The promise of doing so through the Section 235(b) process, even if temporarily while a child’s case is being adjudicated, may be a strong pull.
The research does not yet exist to confirm that the Section 235(b) provision has caused the 2014 acceleration in unaccompanied Central American minors’ migration. WOLA researchers did not hear it mentioned in interviews with migrants, migrant defenders, or shelter personnel during a February visit to Mexico’s southern border.
On the other hand, some press reports and comments from U.S. officials have mentioned Central Americans’ belief that the U.S. government is granting special permits (“permisos”) for children. This may be a mistaken reference to the “notices to appear” issued to those being released into relatives’ custody. We do not know how widespread this belief is in Central America, or when it began to spread. But if it did, it explains some of the sharp 2014 increase in unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.
Whatever the reason, the U.S. government must take seriously all unaccompanied minors’ claims for protection, even if many are ultimately found to lack sufficient merit. The criminal gangs and organized crime groups driving Central America’s out-of-control violence do target young people. A significant portion of the children here probably face a credible and specific threat of death or other harm. They can also credibly claim that their own governments are unwilling or unable to protect them.
Identifying these threatened individual minors, and evaluating their cases, will take time. An expedited effort to process and deport them must not put them in harm’s way. U.S. authorities must consider each case separately.
The Obama administration is promising to “fix” the procedure for unaccompanied minors set out in the 2008 law. A funding request that the White House submitted to Congress on July 8 calls for “increased detainment and removal of adults with children and increased immigration court capacity to speed cases.” A June 30 letter to Congress from President Obama promises administrative measures “providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children.”
These measures may be necessary to deal with an overwhelmed system, but the imperative to “speed cases” must not weaken Central American children’s right to due process. Procedural changes must not mean the kind of haste that leads to deporting children who face a high probability of being killed or otherwise harmed.
As for the claims in the 34 House members’ letter? They are patently false. They ignore the timing of the wave of unaccompanied children’s arrivals. They ignore the region-wide nature of the trend. They ignore the impact of the 2008 law—the letter doesn’t even mention it—and propose no way to protect thousands of children who may face grave threats to their lives if forcibly returned.
Instead, the letter pins the blame for the crisis on a modest measure, and two unfinished proposals, made during the Obama administration’s tenure. This leaves the unpleasant impression that its signers are comfortable using a genuine humanitarian emergency to score political points.
— Adam Isacson