A young boy is is helped down from the top of a freight car, as Central Americans board a northbound freight train in Ixtepec, Mexico, Saturday, July 12, 2014. The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. Children are also widely believed to be crossing with their parents in rising numbers.
Analysis indicates that unaccompanied children come from the most violent regions of Honduras and El Salvador, and the poorest parts of Guatemala. Click to see the full map.
1. Who are these children?
The U.S. government estimates that between 60-90,000 unaccompanied migrant children will be detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this year. Roughly 75 percent of those children come from Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The number of unaccompanied children from Central America has grown significantly every year since 2008, from a few thousand to the current estimates for 2014 ranging in the tens of thousands. More than half of them are between 13-17 years old, but the number of children under 12 years of age has more than doubled in the past 20 months. Honduras is the origin country for the majority of children and single mothers.
2. Why are they coming here?
There are many reasons, but primarily, the children are fleeing countries that are wracked by uncontrolled drug-cartel and gang violence, extreme poverty and that suffer from weak governmental institutions that could allay these “push factors," Among the “pull factors”: the overwhelming majority of these children are coming to be reunited with parents who left them behind years ago or with relatives. Certain laws and policies instituted since 2008 by both the Bush and Obama Administrations appear to incentivize the exodus. However, data from the United Nations shows that an ever-increasing number of Central American children are seeking asylum elsewhere, including Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico.
3. Why aren't these children deported as soon as they are detained at the border?
Several laws, including the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act passed under the Bush Administration, allow children from Central America to remain in the U.S. while a full deportation process takes place. The law also provides that the children be placed “in the least restrictive setting” possible while their cases are heard. This usually means handing the children over first to the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then to parents or relatives living here, regardless of whether the parents or relatives are undocumented immigrants themselves.
4. What is the usual outcome of these cases?
According to the federal government, the majority of these children will not qualify for any type of immigration relief under current law and will most likely be found to be “deportable” when their case is ultimately adjudicated.
5. If the children are likely to be found deportable why do their parents or in some cases the children risk the trip?
There are many factors behind individual decisions to have unaccompanied children cross the border illegally. There is, however, one systemic problem with the current immigration process that appears to be creating a de-facto, quasi-legal immigration status where these children are able to remain in the country for years while their deportation cases are heard.
First, there is a huge backlog in the caseload of immigration courts and reaching a final outcome in a case can take anywhere from 18-36 months. That means that the child in essence has managed to escape whatever dangers he or she faced in Central America and be reunited with relatives here during that time. The parents, who are usually undocumented themselves, may decide to ignore the process once they get custody of their child or ignore the final order of deportation once the process is completed.
Other factors that may contribute to the situation include the Obama Administration's policies that target DHS resources for deporting dangerous and or criminal undocumented immigrants. These policies delay the deportation hearing process for less important cases (such as unaccompanied minors) and the hunt for criminal undocumented aliens weakens the likelihood that immigration officers will pursue families and children who ignore final deportation orders. Misconceptions over other Obama policies — such as Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which permits certain undocumented immigrant youth (known as DREAMers) to get work permits and social security numbers — may also play a role, even though DACA does not apply to these children.
6. Why are children transported to facilities around the country?
The 2008 law, previously referenced, says unaccompanied minors can be held in DHS facilities — usually on the border — for no more than 72 hours. Afterwards, they must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and placed in some type of facility that has been approved for sheltering or detaining minors. The children are held in these facilities until their parents or relatives are contacted and arrangements are made for the children to be handed over to their relatives.
The totality of HHS facilities have capacity for about 3,000 beds, so the federal government must identify and then contract with existing organizations that are willing and able to do handle the overflow. In some cases, the organizations have physical facilities that allow them to take some of the children. In other cases, the federal government provides the physical facility (usually some type of vacant federal building) and the organization supplies the appropriate staffing. The overwhelming number of children arriving in the past year has short-circuited the process of housing the children in DHS facilities, moving the children from DHS to HHS custody and finally into familial custody.
7. What happens when these children are held in DHS and HHS facilities?
The children have to be identified and processed as unlawful immigrants and case numbers have to be assigned so they can be scheduled in immigration courts. This is done while they are in DHS custody. The children are also given well-child screening, mental health screening and any type of vaccinations and medical care needed. This may happen both under DHS and HHS custody. The children’s relatives are contacted and arrangements made to have a relative pick them up from the HHS-approved facility where the children are being held. This process can take anywhere from several weeks to several months, though the average time is 35 days.
The children are not allowed to leave the facility or interact with local communities. Children appear to be assigned to these temporary shelters based on availability and logistical convenience of transporting them with much less emphasis on where the children's relatives may live. One mother told WAMU she had to drive from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to a Catholic Youth Services facility in Miami, Florida, where her son was being held after being detained in Texas.
8. What about unaccompanied minor children who don't have family here?
The U.S. government estimates that 96 percent of unaccompanied minors are reunited with parents or relatives. The 4 percent that cannot be reunited with relatives in the U.S. are declared orphans and become wards of the federal government. That wardship is then transferred to local jurisdictions where the children are placed in approved foster homes. These children usually qualify for some type of asylum or special refugee status because courts generally find that sending them back to their home country would place them at risk. This is because the children have suffered some type of trauma in their home country, during the exodus or while in the U.S. While in a foster home, the child is given a social worker, an attorney and Medicaid. The bulk of the cost of supporting that child until age 21 is borne by the federal government. This process is similar to that used for child refugees from Eritrea, Afghanistan and other war torn regions.
WAMU has interviewed local organizations that place unaccompanied minors (with no relatives in the U.S.) with foster families. These groups tell WAMU the demand for foster families has outstripped the supply and they are working to train and certify more local families that can offer loving homes to these truly lost and lonely children.
9. What happens with unaccompanied minor children when they are released into the custody of their parents or relatives in the U.S.?
The children return to wherever their parents or relatives live in the U.S. Those children are supposed to enroll in local schools and will remain in local communities as their immigration cases proceed. Their status does not preclude them from any of the education or social services they are entitled to receive under federal and local laws.
10. The Obama Administration has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address the crisis. What do they want to do?
If approved, the money will be used to beef up border security, expand border processing facilities, contract more HHS approved facilities to shelter children until they can be reunited with parents and hire more immigration judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to handle the backlog of cases.
The White House has put out a fact sheet that details what the money would be used for.
11. There has been some talk about changing the 2008 law to speed up the deportation process. What is being proposed?
There are several proposals being floated by Republican lawmakers and supported at least partly by the White House. The shared common point would do away with the requirement that Central American children receive a full deportation hearing that could take years. It's unlikely, however, that a polarized Congress will change the law or do so quickly because some Democratic lawmakers are loathe to do away with anything that provides proper due process to the children. Given that Honduras' murder rate is the highest in the world, the Obama administration is floating a proposal that would grant asylum to some Hondurans children and mothers.
12. Why should people in the D.C. area care about a border crisis?
While the crisis is on the border, the vast majority of unaccompanied children detained at the border are coming to be and will in fact be reunited with parents or relatives somewhere in the U.S. The D.C. area has one of the largest concentration of Central American immigrants in the nation and therefore a significant but as yet undetermined number of these children are being reunited with parents and relatives who live in the region.
WAMU has interviewed local immigration organizations that work with these communities and all report a growing number of unaccompanied child immigrants and parents seeking advice and services. School officials in Montgomery County and the District report an increase in Central American students over the past year and expect an increase as the new school year begins. It's likely that the federal government may open an HHS-approved facility to temporarily shelter unaccompanied minors until they can be reunited with local relatives however no such site has as of yet been designated.
13. Is this a new problem or issue?
It is not. Unaccompanied minors from Central America have been coming into the U.S. and the metro D.C. area for at least a decade. Many local organizations such as Mary’s Center, the Latin American Youth Center, Mary’s House, CARECEN, La Clinica Del Pueblo and CASA de Maryland underscore that this is not a new issue and they have been working with this population for decades. What is new, they say, is the exponential increase in the number of children arriving in the past three years and the unprecedented increase this past year.
14. What role do the human traffickers and smugglers play in the unaccompanied minor crisis?
Human traffickers, known as “coyotes” play a huge role in the crisis, not only in smuggling the children, but in fueling misperceptions about the immigration laws in the United States. Smuggling children is highly lucrative and poses a lower risk than adults. This is because smugglers will usually drop kids on the other side of the border and tell the children to turn themselves in to authorities. Adults are usually escorted deeper into the United States and eventually to their final destination, usually a large metropolis with many immigrants. This makes the smugglers time investment and exposure to arrest much higher when dealing with adults.
The coyotes are able to rid themselves of their child cargo much faster. Smuggling children is also more lucrative because desperate parents will pay much larger sums to bring their children here than adults are willing to pay for themselves. A mother of three from Guatemala told WAMU that she paid $12,000 for her three children. If you consider this is $4,000 per child and calculate that nearly 60,000 children have been detained on the border this year alone, it’s easy to see the staggering amount of money being reaped by coyotes.
The coyotes could also be fueling rumors and misconceptions about current U.S. immigration law, telling parents and children that recent administrative decisions by the Obama administration allowing certain young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers to defer their deportation will actually apply to the children smuggled now. This is patently false.
The Obama Administration has discussed the issue with Mexico, and Mexico has promised to crack down on human smuggling rings and to strengthen policing and immigration efforts at its southern borders with Guatemala and Belize. This is where most of the undocumented Central American children cross in order to get to the Mexico-U.S. border.