Since October of last year, smuggling organizations have brought more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors into the United States from Mexico and Central America, and the flow continues. According to federal statistics, this is more than double the influx of children from the previous year. As a result, the shelters set up for these children are overflowing. President Barack Obama has acknowledged that we have an “urgent humanitarian situation” on our hands.
If a child is from Mexico, he or she can quickly be returned to their country because of an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments. Children from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, however, are a different story. Fingers are being pointed at President Obama’s policy of “deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA)”, but the law dictating that Central American children be sent to shelters was actually signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush.
Current immigration law requires Customs and Border Protection to place the children in a shelter within three days and dictates that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) take responsibility for the unaccompanied children and seek the best interests of the child, rather than treating them like criminals. According to the HHS, a child will typically spend less than 35 days in a shelter before being placed with family members or guardians living in America to await deportation and asylum hearings – which can take months or even years.
With the unexpected rise in the influx of unaccompanied minors, President Obama has created temporary camps at Border Patrol Stations as well as a number of military facilities in California, Texas, and Oklahoma to help with the housing dilemma. The Department of Defense has authorized these temporary camps to remain open for 120 days.
Southern Texas is where the majority of the border crossings occur. In early June, 1,000 children were transported from Texas to an emergency shelter in Nogales, AZ. On June 25th, Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer toured the Arizona facility where the children are given medical screenings, vaccinations, and hot meals. This facility houses about 900 children on any given day. Andrew Wilder, spokesman for Governor Brewer, said, “We fully expect this crisis to continue because there is no solution to fix it.” Plans are currently underway to open a more permanent housing facility in Tucson, AZ.
Officials believe that the rise in illegal immigration of unaccompanied minors is largely due to an increase in violence, drugs, and gang-related activities in Central America. In a recent American Immigration Council publication (“No Childhood here: Why Central American Children Are Fleeing Their Homes”), Elizabeth Kennedy substantiates this view based on her work with youth migrants and their families in El Salvador. Kennedy notes that, “Parents and guardians typically express great distress about weighing the risks of an incredibly dangerous journey to the U.S. versus an incredibly dangerous childhood and adolescence in El Salvador.” Her interviews reveal a grim picture in which a child’s 13th birthday can be a source of sadness for the family as aggressive gangs begin recruiting members at the onset of adolescence. This heightened risk of gang-related altercations continues until the child reaches their late 20’s. Families have little faith in the Salvadoran government or Police force to protect them. Kennedy believes that her findings are common in the other two nations as well, and notes that extreme poverty and family reunification are also significant factors.
Secretary Johnson, however, blames the circulation of false rumors regarding the legal disposition of the children upon their arrival in the United States. “I do believe that the smuggling organizations are putting out a lot of disinformation about the legal conditions here in the U.S. to induce this activity.”
According to Johnson, more than half of the children from Central America are united with family members here in the U.S. while awaiting the lengthy deportation process. Many republicans are worried that this is sending the wrong message to Central American countries. Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY) indicated that improving the conditions for, and reuniting the children with their American families “can look like a free pass,” with potential to undermine the idea that illegal immigrants cannot stay in the United States.
In response to the overwhelming problem in Southern Texas, Secretary Johnson has ordered 115 additional Customs and Border Protection agents and 60 criminal investigator to help deal with the situation and dismantle the smuggling rings. Texas Governor Rick Perry announced plans to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to support state and local law enforcement, and help deter cartels with their physical presence. Last month 163 alleged smugglers were arrested. In the meantime, Johnson will continue to push public service announcements that send the message to Central American parents that this is a very dangerous journey – with no “free pass” at the end.
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