Republican lawmakers are holding hearings this week on the surge in unaccompanied alien minors reaching our borders. The Obama Administration's response to what was labeled a "humanitarian crisis," has evolved into a surge of its own, sending teams of immigration judges and federal attorneys to expedite deportation hearings for the children and families who are overwhelming most existing federal detention facilities.
The Department of Homeland Security announced that 52,000 unaccompanied children had been detained as of last week, and by year's end DHS expects that number to have increased to as many as 90,000.
The difference with the most recent entrants from those in the past is a spike in the number of girls and of children younger than 13 years of age, including some barely old enough to walk. In the past, approximately 70 percent have been between the ages of 15 and 17. There are also more pregnant and parenting teen mothers arriving.
The sharp increase has generated tremendous media coverage and speculation by elected officials and others about the reasons. However, many of the explanations are overly simplistic. Some say this surge is the result of immigration reform promises or administrative reforms in enforcement that have sent encouraging signals to Central Americans, suggesting that they may enjoy a "de facto amnesty" if they get across the Mexico border. Others say the children are being drawn by rumors about special protections for migrant children by the Administration, and point to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program announced in 2012.
In reality, the problem is enormously complex. The Women's Refugee Commission found through interviews with 151 such youth that their migration arose out of longstanding, complex problems in their home countries - that is, the growing influence of youth gangs and drug cartels, targeting of youth by gangs and police, gender based violence, rising poverty, and continuing unemployment. Over 77 percent of the participants stated violence was the main reason more children were fleeing their countries.
• Violence in home countries. Honduras, where the largest numbers of unaccompanied minors are coming from, has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2011, Honduras became the country with the highest murder rate in the world. Homicide rates in El Salvador are only marginally lower than in Honduras, with 66 individuals killed for every 10,000 inhabitants.
• Children are at a greater risk of gang violence. Collaboration between drug cartels and gangs has led to a significant increase in violence, with children and teens being the primary targets. According the University of Democracy, Peace and Security, 920 Honduran children were murdered between January and March of 2012. In El Salvador, gangs have increasingly targeted children at their schools, resulting in El Salvador having one of the lowest school attendance rates in Latin America.
• Human and drug trafficking: Due to the influence of cartels in Mexico and at the border, the current migratory experience is very much connected with human and drug trafficking. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that organized criminal groups coerce children into prostitution and to work as hit men, lookouts, and drug mules. Drug traffickers may target minors in their home country and force them to traffic drugs across the border and once they are in the United States. Because these youth often travel alone and are escaping death in their home countries, they are often faced with no choice but to carry drugs or work for drug cartels in order to across the border. Gang and drug trafficking in Central America are also increasingly recruiting girls to smuggle and sell drugs in their home countries, using gang rape as a means of forcing them into compliance. Many gangs are targeting younger girls, some as young as nine-years-old, for rape and sexual assault. Gangs also use the threat of rape as a tactic to gain money through extortion and kidnapping.
A recent survey conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center of immigrant youth legal service providers confirmed that there is no simple answer to why these children are migrating to the United States in large numbers. Twenty-five percent of respondents found that youth come to the U.S. based on a combination of four factors: neglect, abuse, or abandonment, gang violence, drug violence, and poverty. This was followed by 19 percent fleeing gang violence and 16 percent fleeing poverty. In particular, many respondents found that these cases involved youth who faced gang recruitment and threats in their home country. These youth also suffered abuse within their families or abandonment by one or both parents and have little to no parental presence.
This is indeed a humanitarian crisis that deserves a humanitarian response. Let's take a deep breath and stop playing politics with children's lives. Some of the youth may qualify for special immigrant juvenile status, asylum or visas for victims of crime. If so, let's live up to our humanitarian responsibilities and act accordingly.