A Dangerous Summer for Central American Kids

This month, as kids across the United States wrapped up the school year and started their summer breaks, thousands of children from Central America were embarking on a different kind of transition.

Spurred by violence, poverty, broken families, and lack of hope for a safe and productive future, some 80,000-90,000 children are expected to cross our southern border without their parents this fiscal year; as many as 140,000 could come next year. U.S. Border Patrol reports that apprehensions of these children are up 92 percent from this time last year and that an increasing number are under the age of 12.

While the number of children coming from Mexico has leveled off, the number coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has surged. And they're not just running to the United States. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have seen a 435 percent increase in asylum applications they submitted by individuals from these countries.

The journeys these children take are incredibly dangerous, putting them at risk of falling victim to dehydration, violence, rape, trafficking and exploitation throughout the journey.

They take the risk in order to escape the pervasive crime and violence in the "Northern Triangle" of Central America -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In their home countries, there are few employment opportunities; about a third of young people in these countries are neither employed nor in school. The police do not protect them, and the weak governments in the region do not control the violence.

In early June, President Obama formally designated the influx of children an "urgent humanitarian situation" requiring a coordinated federal response to be led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is legally required to take custody of children who have entered the United States (unless they are Mexican, in which case they are usually returned quickly to Mexico). ORR must then provide housing until the child can be released to a relative or placed in foster care, where he or she will wait for an immigration hearing.

This system was designed to serve the 6,000-8,000 kids who were coming to the U.S. every year. It can't handle 80,000. Right now, there is simply not enough space to house the children who are here, let alone those still coming, and the U.S. must meet the most basic needs of these children immediately.

The Obama Administration already has deported more people, spent more money on border enforcement, and employed more immigration enforcement personnel, than any administration in American history. Yet the kids keep coming, and the President and Congress have failed to provide adequate funding to ORR to house these kids. Increasing border enforcement even further will not solve the humanitarian crisis of children crossing our borders in record numbers. Rather, it could result in child refugees being barred from accessing the urgent protection they need.

In response to the crisis, Vice President Biden stopped in Guatemala last week during his June Latin America trip, where he met with senior government officials in the region. His goal was to get the message across to parents that sending their children to the U.S. is not safe.
Central American parents already know this, but believe that their children's risk of violence along the journey to the United States outweighs their risk of violence staying at home.
The best long-term solution to this crisis is more safety and opportunity for children in the countries of the Northern Triangle. On his trip, Vice President Biden announced the United States will be spending $255 million to assist reintegration of returnees, prosecution of criminal gang members, and expanding youth programs to prevent gang recruitment. The Administration could further alleviate the situation by providing channels for refugees to apply within Central America and Mexico for lawful entry to the United States.

In the meantime, the U.S. must ensure that children who flee the violence and have asylum claims are able to make them, and that procedures for kids in the immigration system are fair and humane. Systems and funding should be put in place to provide these kids competent legal representation. As children, they should not be expected to represent themselves in immigration court. In addition, the U.S. government should allocate adequate funding to the immigration courts so that they can process cases quickly. Few things are more harmful to effective immigration enforcement than a massive case backlog.

Finally, our leaders must remember that this is about children. While our kids are starting their summer breaks, thousands of Central American children are fleeing violence and hopelessness in search of a safe place and a better life. Their safety and well-being must be at the core of every policy decision in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis on our southern border.