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.

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