Lessons and Concerns: The Differences Between the Response to Unaccompanied Child Migrants in 2014 and 2015

During the summer of 2014, the United States saw an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the U.S./Mexico border without their parents. U.S Customs and Border Protection reports a 48 percent decrease in Southwest Border apprehensions of unaccompanied child migrants for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 compared to from FY 2014. While this is a significant statistical change, the decreased numbers of apprehensions do not tell the complete story of what has changed since the summer of 2014 in terms of protection of these minors, prevention of harm, and reasons for leaving their home countries. It is easy to look at these figures and think “the problem has been solved.” In reality, the systemic issues that lead to the “2014 surge” remain, and the U.S., along with the governments of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador continue to face evolving and new challenges.

As a brief recap, the vast majority of the unaccompanied children were and are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (the “Northern Triangle”). The sheer number of children apprehended on the border in 2014 presented numerous immediate and long-term problems for the protection and maintenance of these children. Particular areas of concern were:

  • Sufficient spaces in shelters;
  • Effective screening process to identify eligible sponsors who will take of the minors while they await their immigration court proceedings (such as a parent, sibling, or family friend);
  • Providing post-release services (school enrollment, cultural integration, etc.); and
  • Timely process in the underfunded, understaffed immigration courts.

Some of these pressing concerns were remedied over the past year, such as more resources from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, like the informational hotline for parents and children, and better staffed and prepared immigration shelters. Other problem areas continue, such as the lengthy waiting periods for an initial court hearing, with some children waiting for up to three years to have their first hearing.

In addition to the pragmatic issues raised by last year’s “surge” of child migrants, the discussions of protection frameworks and prevention methods were raised. The need for tangible protection of these children was and remains paramount, so they are physically safe and do not fall into the hands of human traffickers, drug cartels, or criminal enterprises. Simultaneously, the United States must ensure that these children are not being abused in shelters or sponsor’s homes in the U.S., and prevent their repatriation to an abusive or dangerous situation in their country of origin.

A polarized discussion about legal protection arose and focused on the limited scope of available forms of legal relief, such as asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and the responsibility to protect, originating from United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The other side of the argument called for more expeditious deportations and a reduction in the scope of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which allows certain unaccompanied child migrants to stay in the U.S. while they await their immigration court hearings.

These discussions often went hand-in-hand with conversations about stemming migrant flows across the U.S. border, with a greater focus on amplifying border protection mechanisms with more agents and better detection technology. This idea of prevention also extended to placing a larger onus on Mexico’s southern border to prevent children and adult migrants from passing northward through Mexico. While there has been interest in addressing root causes (such as endemic poverty, gang violence, and separated families) it is significantly limited compared to the prevention focus. Multiple reports argue that children generally migrate for a combination of reasons, such as reuniting with their family, seeking better educational opportunities, and because of escalating gang violence in their home community. Because of this multiplicity, it is important for programs and policies to address a variety of in-country issues.

Since last summer, there has been a greater interest in regional collaboration, between country governments and civil society actors. All of the countries involved face unique challenges: The United States must simultaneously adhere to its responsibility to protect refugees and children, in particular, and ensure national security interests and laws are held through deporting individuals who enter the U.S. without authorization; Mexico must absorb deported Mexican migrants and deport unauthorized Central American migrants; and the Northern Triangle countries must receive deported citizens while attempting to curtail violence and poverty. The most notable outcome of this regional collaboration has been the creation of the “Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” that was announced in November of 2014 to “stimulate economic growth, reduce inequality, promote educational opportunities, target criminal networks responsible for human trafficking, and help create governance and institutions that are transparent and accountable.” Further regional collaboration is necessary to remedy this multi-dimensional problem with a focus on both immediate and long-term sustainable solutions.

In reflecting on the 2015 numbers of unaccompanied child apprehensions on the U.S. Southwest border, it raises the concern as to why these numbers are so low. There is no aggregated data to show how many children continue to leave their home countries or what happens to the children who leave their home but are not apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities. There are rising concerns about migrant children being forced into compulsory labor, human trafficking, criminal enterprises, or drug cartels along the route. This is especially true along the southern border of Mexico , which some argue constitutes a humanitarian crisis.

A recent report, “Children and Migration in Central and North America: Causes, Policies, Practices and Challenges” directed by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at U.C. Hastings and la Universidad Nacional de Lanus, addresses, in certain chapters, the complexities, challenges, and dangers for children traveling through Mexico and the shortcomings of certain Mexican policies aimed to remedy the situation.

It is clear that the U.S. has learned some tremendous lessons from the 2014 surge of child migrants and continues to be conscious of child safety, the child’s best interest, and the need for protection and prevention. Regional actors need to continue to collaborate to further remedy this issue. Finally, it is tremendously important for government officials, policy makers, civil society actors, and the general public to understand the causes for out-migration of these children and to question what these children undergo (in home countries, Mexico, and the U.S.) in order to best meet their needs and design and implement effective programs at all levels throughout the region.

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