Why 90,000 Children Flooding Our Border Is Not an Immigration Story

Virtual cities of children are fleeing their homes. This is a lot bigger than U.S. border control, a United Nations protection officer explains.

A boy on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence peers into Arizona following a special 'Mass on the Border' on April 1, 2014 in Nogales, Arizona.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
June 16, 2014, 10:07 a.m.

The num­bers are astound­ing.

Just a few weeks ago, the United States was pro­ject­ing 60,000 un­ac­com­pan­ied minors would at­tempt to il­leg­ally cross the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der by the end of the year. That pro­jec­tion is now 90,000, and it may be sur­passed.

Vir­tu­al cit­ies of chil­dren are pick­ing up and flee­ing El Sal­vador, Hon­dur­as, and Guatem­ala — some of the most dan­ger­ous places in this hemi­sphere. In Wash­ing­ton, the story has stoked the long­stand­ing de­bate over bor­der policy. But U.S. im­mig­ra­tion policy is just a small part of this story. Yes, the U.S. im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem is now bot­tle­necked with the in­flux, prompt­ing emer­gency re­sponse from the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency. But chan­ging U.S. bor­der policy won’t stem the root of the ex­odus.

“The nor­mal mi­gra­tion pat­terns in this re­gion have changed,” Leslie Velez, seni­or pro­tec­tion of­ficer at the U.N. High Com­mis­sion for Refugees, ex­plains. These people aren’t com­ing here for eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity. They are flee­ing for their lives.

Earli­er this year, the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sion­er on Refugees sur­veyed 404 chil­dren from Mex­ico and Cent­ral Amer­ica who ar­rived in the United States il­leg­ally, and asked a simple ques­tion: Why did you leave? The re­port found “that no less than 58 per­cent of the 404 chil­dren in­ter­viewed were for­cibly dis­placed” to a de­gree that war­ran­ted in­ter­na­tion­al pro­tec­tion, mean­ing that if the U.S. re­fused these chil­dren, it could be in breach of U.N. con­ven­tions.

Velez was one of the au­thors of that re­port, in­ter­view­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant chil­dren across the U.S. im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem for two hours each. They told Velez and her team stor­ies of ex­treme vi­ol­ence, and fear of be­ing caught up in gangs. Forty-eight per­cent of the chil­dren “shared ex­per­i­ences of how they had been per­son­ally af­fected by the aug­men­ted vi­ol­ence” at the hands of “or­gan­ized armed crim­in­al act­ors, in­clud­ing drug car­tels and gangs, or by state act­ors.”

Re­cently, I spoke with Velez over the phone to learn more about the forces mo­tiv­at­ing chil­dren to make the jour­ney north. Be­low is an ed­ited tran­script of our con­ver­sa­tion.

When did it be­come ap­par­ent that something out of the or­din­ary was hap­pen­ing with mi­gra­tion out of Cent­ral Amer­ica?

Our sis­ter agency, the U.N. Of­fice on Drugs and Crime, star­ted the clock at the in­crease in vi­ol­ence and in­sec­ur­ity in the North­ern Tri­angle in 2006.

Around 2008, it was prob­ably the first time it really hit the U.N. refugee agency’s radar. When we went back to the num­bers, there was an in­crease in asylum ap­plic­a­tions start­ing as early as 2005. It wasn’t too sig­ni­fic­ant un­til we got to 2008. And in 2008 to 2013 we noted a 712 per­cent in­crease that were lodged in coun­tries oth­er than the United States [like Mex­ico, Panama, Bel­ize, and Costa Rica].

So why are we hear­ing about this now?

The num­bers have been doub­ling every year since 2011. And for us, that’s dra­mat­ic. For the U.S. gov­ern­ment — who has been really chal­lenged in or­der to pro­cess this large num­ber — I think their ca­pa­city has really been tested in the last few weeks. I think that’s what gen­er­ated a lot of at­ten­tion. Be­cause the num­bers have rap­idly in­creased.

And your next fol­lowup ques­tion is prob­ably go­ing to be, “Why?”

Yes it is. Why?

From re­ports that we are hear­ing from in­di­vidu­als on the ground, both from our U.N. of­fices that are there, as well as NGOs — in par­tic­u­lar Cath­ol­ic Re­lief Ser­vices in El Sal­vador — they have been really clear that on the ground a few im­port­ant things are hap­pen­ing.

One is that the crim­in­al armed act­ors, spe­cific­ally gangs, are really op­er­at­ing with sig­ni­fic­ant im­pun­ity and tar­get­ing chil­dren at a young­er and young­er age. Re­cently there was a very pub­lic mas­sacre and dis­mem­ber­ment of chil­dren as young as sev­en who had re­fused to join the gang. So it was a mes­sage to show who is in power, who is in con­trol.

This is a huge story, in­volving tens of thou­sands of per­son­al stor­ies and the in­tric­ate his­tor­ies of three troubled coun­tries. But for those un­fa­mil­i­ar with the hap­pen­ings in Cent­ral Amer­ica — how would you en­cap­su­late what’s go­ing on down there?

It’s a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis in the re­gion. The num­bers are alarm­ing, but the stor­ies be­hind them are even more so. The situ­ation is ba­sic­ally this: we have weak gov­ern­ments, en­trenched poverty, and a grow­ing con­trol and power of crim­in­al act­ors.

Why kids?

That’s a really good ques­tion. The kids are vul­ner­able be­cause they are chil­dren. And they are be­ing tar­geted.

We liken the situ­ation very much to the situ­ation of the re­cruit­ment of child sol­diers on oth­er con­tin­ents. Chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­able, they are sus­cept­ible to harm, they are eas­ily ter­ror­ized, and the very fact that they are chil­dren is the single factor in the harm that they are ex­per­i­en­cing. They are spe­cific­ally be­ing tar­get to be re­cruited. They are the ones who are be­ing bul­lied.

Much of the news has fo­cused on the U.S. re­sponse at the bor­der. But is there much journ­al­ism com­ing out of the con­flict areas?

There’s really little. Most of the me­dia that cov­ers it well is Span­ish me­dia.

Is that chan­ging?

I hope so.

Who is mak­ing the de­cision to flee, to go north? Is it the kids them­selves, the par­ents? How much choice do the kids have in this and how do they make this de­cision?

I think I hear the ques­tion you are ask­ing but I’m go­ing to give you a dif­fer­ent an­swer.

This is a situ­ation of forced dis­place­ment. After in­ter­view­ing 404 chil­dren for our own re­port, when the num­bers came back they showed that 58 per­cent of them were flee­ing vi­ol­ence. Very little choice, that they were flee­ing.

I think your ques­tion went to, well, who has the agency here, is it the chil­dren mak­ing de­cision for them­selves, the grand­par­ents, the fam­ily mem­bers? Who is do­ing it?”

I guess the ques­tion back to you is, is there really a choice here? Already in the con­text of en­trenched poverty in which crim­in­al gang armed act­ors can really act with im­pun­ity. This is a bad re­cipe.

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, as many as 60,000 minors have come to our bor­der this year. When I hear num­bers that high, I won­der, is this a sys­tem­at­ic form of travel? Are there eco­nom­ies in­volved in this mass move­ment of people? Ex­ploit­a­tion?

Well, the 60,000 mark was hit maybe a good three or four weeks ago. The pro­jec­tions are about 90,000 by the end of the fisc­al year. We’re talk­ing about un­ac­com­pan­ied chil­dren.

In terms of how they are get­ting here: So many of them are just in­vis­ible. Some people are be­ing smuggled, some people are be­ing traf­ficked, some people think that they are pay­ing a smug­gler and they end up be­ing traf­ficked, some people come with oth­er re­l­at­ives. There are so many dif­fer­ent stor­ies. And I think there are a lot of act­ors that are ac­tu­ally ex­ploit­ing the fact that these chil­dren are in­creas­ingly vul­ner­able. And there are a lot of for-profit en­tit­ies out there that are try­ing to profit [off] the chil­dren who are try­ing to leave.

Is the an­swer we just don’t know? Is there a fog of in­form­a­tion between Cent­ral Amer­ica and the U.S. ?

Last year Mex­ico ap­pre­hen­ded 5,500 [chil­dren] in the same year, 23,000 ar­rived to the United States, and I’m not in­clud­ing Mex­ic­ans in the 23,000 fig­ure. These are all chil­dren from El Sal­vador, Hon­dur­as, and Guatem­ala. Twenty-three thou­sand of them made it through Mex­ico without be­ing de­tec­ted.

In the wake of these trends, some law­makers have called on in­creased south­ern bor­der se­cur­ity for Mex­ico. What do you make of that?

I think that’s a knee-jerk re­ac­tion, which is not en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate. But any con­ver­sa­tion about in­creas­ing en­force­ment of oth­er coun­tries at points south has to in­clude pro­tec­tion from send­ing people back to where they fear per­se­cu­tion or tor­ture.

I’ve been read­ing that these chil­dren are com­ing north on ru­mors that the United States will let them in, that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has lax policies to­ward minors. Did you find that at all in your sur­vey?

We in­ter­viewed 404 chil­dren ask­ing ex­tremely open-ended ques­tions as to the reas­ons and the nature of hav­ing left and what they were ex­pect­ing when they ar­rived. Out of the 404, only 9 of them men­tioned any kind of pos­sib­il­ity of the U.S. treat­ing chil­dren well. Two said “im­mig­ra­tion re­form”; one said “I hear they treat kids well.” It’s very gen­er­al and from the per­spect­ive of a child. But only nine out of 404 said any­thing about that.

So what is at­tract­ing them to the United States?

First, I have to point out to you, it’s not just the United States. That was a an­oth­er red flag for us. There is an in­creas­ing trend to seek asylum in Mex­ico, which is much safer for them than where they are from. The num­ber of asylum seekers in Nicaragua, in Bel­ize, in Costa Rica, in Panama — all of that has grown 712 per­cent since 2008.

This is not the nor­mal flow. For the U.N. refugee agency to re­gister an up­tick in asylum ap­plic­a­tions in places oth­er than the United States is a huge red flag for us. People are leav­ing to places where they can find safety.

So what are the coun­tries ex­per­i­en­cing the in­flux?

The U.S, Canada, Mex­ico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Bel­ize.

How many people have left El Sal­vador, Hon­dur­as, and Guatem­ala? I’m try­ing to ima­gine the long-term im­pacts of tens of thou­sands of young people leav­ing their homes be­hind.

We don’t know how many people have left. I can gen­er­ally sig­nal how many have been picked up on the radar by the states. As of last month we have 45,000 adults who have in­dic­ated a fear of re­turn to U.S. bor­der of­fi­cials. Of that num­ber, ap­prox­im­ately 70 per­cent of that 45,000 fig­ure are from those same three coun­tries.

These are just the folks who are claim­ing fear of re­turn, get­ting that re­gistered. This is what has ac­tu­ally hit the radar. We have no idea about how many people don’t get in­ter­cep­ted by bor­der au­thor­it­ies. There is no way for us to track the num­ber of in­di­vidu­als that are part of reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion-en­force­ment activ­it­ies.

Already to be talk­ing about a flow of over 100,000 people from three coun­tries is quite alarm­ing.

Are these refugees? Im­mig­rants? Does the dis­tinc­tion mat­ter?

What we learned from our em­pir­ic­al study was that 58 per­cent of the chil­dren we in­ter­viewed flagged an in­ter­na­tion­al-pro­tec­tion con­cern. Where we drew the line, was that these chil­dren feared re­turn be­cause of vi­ol­ence and in­sec­ur­ity. They feared harm to them­selves, and had the single con­vic­tion that they could not be pro­tec­ted in their coun­tries. So that was our most con­ser­vat­ive lens that we could look at the num­bers. We ex­cluded en­trenched poverty, we ex­cluded everything else. So 58 per­cent of the kids, in a stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant pool of 404, we wanted to be able to ex­tra­pol­ate to have a sig­ni­fic­ant pool, present in­ter­na­tion­al pro­tec­tion con­cerns.

So what does that mean? We did not in­ter­view them [to de­term­ine refugee status]. We in­ter­viewed them to find out why they left. We did a pre­lim­in­ary screen­ing which to us was enough to say these in­di­vidu­als presen­ted con­cerns.

Which means that if a coun­try was to re­ject these people from their bor­ders without al­low­ing them any ac­cess to asylum pro­tec­tion or com­ple­ment­ary pro­tec­tion pro­cesses, it ac­tu­ally would be in breach of the con­ven­tions.

Is the U.S. hand­ling this well?

The U.S. is do­ing everything that I think it pos­sibly can in this short-term con­text. We have really ap­plauded that Pres­id­ent Obama has re­cog­nized there is a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis, and that he en­gaged FEMA and has asked the Sec­ret­ary of Home­land Se­cur­ity to re­spond. The ma­chinery is in place, it’s start­ing to move. The do­mest­ic re­sponse, in the short term, is do­ing the best that it can to get people out of the bottle neck­ing fa­cil­it­ies that are just not equipped to deal with this type of flow.

But what the U.S. could be do­ing bet­ter, is that this is really a re­gion­al is­sue. Each coun­try is unique and if you look at the data in our re­port about what’s hap­pen­ing in each coun­try, you are go­ing to see some clear dif­fer­ence. At the same time it’s a re­gion­al chal­lenge — people are leav­ing and they are go­ing to points North, points South — it re­quires a re­gion­al re­sponse. It’s not on the U.S. alone to solve. But were sup­port­ing it to re­cog­nize that there is a for­eign policy ele­ment here to all of the chal­lenges.

The hu­man­it­ari­an re­sponse is not go­ing to solve the prob­lem. The faucet has to be turned off or the wa­ter is go­ing to keep flow­ing. To that end, the U.S. needs to ad­dress the root causes, and it has a role in ad­dress­ing the root causes. First, on the top of the list, is to con­tin­ue vi­ol­ence-pre­ven­tion ef­forts — like job cre­ation, edu­ca­tion, strengthen wo­men’s coun­sels — do a lot more in­sti­tu­tion strength­en­ing, more gov­ern­ment pro­grams.

What is the Amer­ic­an me­dia get­ting wrong about this story? Or, what’s the take-home point we miss?

This is not a mi­gra­tion story. This is a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis, and an ex­ample of con­sequences of weak gov­ern­ments. It’s a hu­man­it­ari­an crisis and a for­eign policy is­sue. We’re re­spond­ing in a hu­man­it­ari­an way, and sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment to do so, but that’s not go­ing to shut off the faucet.

The nor­mal mi­gra­tion pat­terns in this re­gion have changed. While it is still a mixed mi­gra­tion flow — people are still com­ing for a num­ber of reas­ons. There is a grow­ing num­ber of people who are lit­er­ally flee­ing for their lives.

What We're Following See More »
These (Supposed) Iowa and NH Escorts Tell All
30 minutes ago

Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:

  • Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
  • Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
  • They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
  • One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
Restoring Some Sanity to Encryption
30 minutes ago

No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”

What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
30 minutes ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Hillary Is Running Against the Bill of 1992
30 minutes ago

The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”

Trevor Noah Needs to Find His Voice. And Fast.
1 hours ago

At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”