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


June 16, 2014 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.

"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."SHARE 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.

Out of the 404 children surveyed, only nine of mentioned anything about U.S. immigration policy. SHARE 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.

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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.

"This is not a migration story. This is a humanitarian crisis."SHARE 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.

"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."SHARE 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.