Central American immigrants traveling on the tops of trains through Mexico in order to reach their final destination. John Moore/ Getty Images
These past seven months have seen a noticeable spike in the number of underage children crossing the border. So far this year, the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States that the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrant and Customs Enforcement arrested surpassed 47,000. This alone is a 92% increase from last year’s numbers.
But why the drastic increase?
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are going through a turbulent time. According to Eric Olson, Associate Director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center, these three countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world.
Although, murder rates have decreased in comparison to last year, this does not mitigate the rampant violence that occurs throughout this region. Gang activity is as high as ever. Nevertheless, the lack of stability in this region is pushing parents to send their children to the United States.
Whatever doubts people had on the lengths these gang members are willing in order to continue their regional dominance is long gone now. People throughout this region live in consistent fear. Not only that, but there is no sense of continuity—the belief that life will get better by the time one’s children become adults—and widespread poverty does nothing to alleviate their living conditions.
Human traffickers, known as coyotes, are taking full advantage of this situation. They promote the idea that if there is any time to leave for the United States, that time is now. And parents in Central America buy it. They are willing to pay traffickers thousands of dollars despite being warned of the trip’s dangers and the numerous obstacles the children must face throughout their journey.
The problem becomes what to do with these minors.
Police cautiously monitoring the two opposing protesting groups in Murrieta, California as tensions mount while they all wait for immigrant detainees set to arrive by bus to the U.S. Border Patrol facility. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
Should the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement deport all of these children or provide them with temporary housing until each minor’s situation is determined? This question has created a rigid dichotomy amongst much of the population. Human rights advocates argue that these children should not be treated as immigrants but rather as refugees.
On the other hand, others, such as members of the Tea Party, blame President Obama’s approval of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), created to allow those who entered the country illegally while they were minors to receive a grant of deferred removal action. In other words, eligible immigrants remain legally in the United States for up to 2 years with a possible extension. This is not a path to citizenship, nor is it a guaranteed permanent residence but it allows immigrants who came here illegally to avoid deportation.
Some suggest that the U.S. government deport these minors immediately. However, some international organizations, including the United Nations, argue that many of these children have legitimate claims to stay as they are fleeing desperate situations.
Children detained at a center in Nogales, Arizona. Ross D. Franklin / AP
According to the New York Times, President Obama requested $3.7 billion from Congress in order to respond to this influx of child migrants. Previously, significant amounts of money were spent in trying to secure the border. Given this large influx of immigrants, it is evident that pouring more money into the border is not the solution.
Even if the Obama administration pushed to deport all unaccompanied minors with full force, it could not. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 passed by the U.S. Senate during the Bush administration is intended to help human trafficking victims, however a portion of this act relating to unaccompanied illegal immigrants under the age of 18 makes immediate deportation for them difficult. As stated in a news article from The Oklahoman, “The legislation said they must ‘be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.’ The U.S. Health and Human Services Department is to provide for their custody and care while deportation hearings are under way. The department is to attempt to find a parent or sponsor in the United States while providing free legal representation and a child advocate.”
This past Friday, the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras met with president Obama to discuss this immigration crisis. NPR’s Eyder Peralta writes, “…with Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has helped combat violence in Colombia and Mexico”, yet by doing so, pushed organized crime into Central America.
L-R: Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Cerén, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, President Barack Obama and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez Reuters
Regardless of history in the past, all four countries must focus on the present. The United States must decide how it will improve the manner in which it deals with incoming unaccompanied immigrants. Meanwhile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras must determine what they need to do in order to curb gang violence and thus emigration figures.