We Can Do Better

A human-rights expert on Central American child immigrants

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas. The CPB provided media tours that day of two locations in Brownsville and Nogales, Arizona, that have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since last October 1.

It’s official. The “surge” of unaccompanied minors from Central America is a humanitarian crisis—according to President Obama. The administration estimates that at least 80,000 children (internationally defined as people under 18) will attempt to cross the border on their own this year. At least 57,000 crossed between October 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, a 106 percent increase from last year and a tenfold increase above the flows of a decade ago. Like the tragic case of refugees from Syria, this is an emergency for which recent history should have prepared us. We have decades of experience in dealing with unaccompanied minors from Central America. We know the main causes driving their migration and we know some of the solutions. But unlike the countries bordering Syria, the United States is not responding as neighbors should to a humanitarian crisis. 

The UN announced in early July that Syrian refugees would soon make up one-third of Lebanon’s population. In Jordan more than 600,000 Syrian refugees are already registered, not counting the hundreds of thousands of Syrian Palestinian refugees. Turkey has completely opened its border and more than a million Syrians have arrived. These are countries that have already generously hosted other massive recent refugee flows from the region. The analogy between Syria and Central America is a valid one. Living conditions for poor children in cartel- and gang-infested neighborhoods across Central America have become as dangerous as those for children trapped in Baghdad, Homs or Aleppo.

Consider the following description by Sonia Navarro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recently returned from an investigative trip to Honduras. Cristian, an 11-year-old sixth grader [from] the outskirts of Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) lost his father in March, robbed and murdered by gangs. Three other people he knows were murdered this year; four more were gunned down near his house in a two-week period in January; an 11-year-old girl he knows was robbed of $5, then “clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian’s house.” (New York Times, July 11, 2014). Future prospects are as bleak.

But unlike Middle Eastern countries, we are not helping. Instead we are reacting primarily with border fortification, prompt expulsion, and plans for more systematic expedited removal. Why? Because despite our professed compassion towards innocent and vulnerable children, our punitive impulse to punish, deter, and remove irregular migrants irrespective of age trumps other strategies. That is why the current U.S. “humanitarian” strategy for the vast majority of these particularly vulnerable kids starts with incarceration along the border and ends with deportation back across it. We can do better.

The Roots of Social Dislocation

What are the causes of this increase in unaccompanied child migration? Some blame lax border-control policies by the Obama administration, and, related to that, an increasing sense that children are privileged in current immigration practice, but two causes are uncontroversial.

First, drug- and gang-fueled violence in Central America has reached nightmarish proportions. As the U.S. drug market, re-routed from Colombia through Central America, soars (a recent RAND Corp estimate places the value of illegal drugs at $100 billion), so the supply chain and the violence it spawns suck in growing numbers of destitute young people. They include children as young as four years of age, dragooned into being lookouts by violent gang members. Also involved are tens of thousands of deportees from the United States, schooled in the gang culture of the Latino ghettoes of Los Angeles and Washington, who now terrorize whole neighborhoods into joining the narco traffic. Navarro reports that Honduras , a small country where the value of U.S.-bound drugs surpasses the country’s total GDP, is the starting point for more than 75 percent of cocaine-smuggling flights. It has the highest murder rate in the world—estimated at 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012—and the largest regional exodus of child migrants to the United States. Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala are also plagued by extreme violence and massive drug-related gang activity. Small wonder that the perilous journey north seems like a lesser evil than staying home.

Second, as the size of the undocumented U.S. adult population (estimated at approximately 10 million) grows, and the prospects of legalization any time soon fade, more and more undocumented parents long settled in the United States feel compelled to send for the children they left behind. Deteriorating circumstances back home increase the migration urgency. In the absence of legal exit avenues, child smuggling to circumvent U.S. and other border controls en route becomes big business and children are exposed to traumatic journeys. Accounts of rape, of extortion, of serious injury from moving vehicles, of dehydration, hunger, and brutalization abound. This is the process that precipitated the recent suicide of the 12-year-old Ecuadoran girl, reported on the front page of The New York Times on April 19. She hanged herself in the bathroom of a detention center after her second attempt to join her U.S.-based parents failed.

Seeking Answers

What are the solutions? First and foremost, we urgently need investment in rights-respecting shelters along the border. Children should not be kept in facilities that do not comply with minimum international standards of safety, comfort and nutrition. The U.S. government should not be relying on volunteers to provide shoes, clothes, and food for refugee children weeks after they arrive.

Second, we need high-quality legal resources to enable unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders to learn without undue delay whether they have viable immigration remedies. There are several such remedies on the books. One is asylum, the grant of permanent immigration status for refugees—those who can demonstrate a fear of persecution if sent home. Another remedy is special immigrant juvenile status, a visa for children who are abused, abandoned, or neglected and have no viable family to turn to. Yet another is the grant of special visas for victims of trafficking or serious crimes. And finally, the United States has in the past granted “temporary protection” to those fleeing humanitarian crises, recognizing the compassionate obligation to save lives where countries are imploding due to violence or civil war. All these measures reflect the nation’s accumulated compassion and generosity, its historic engagement with suffering elsewhere and with the needs of vulnerable outsiders who are fellow humans.

Experts with decades of experience working with unaccompanied child migrants from Central America estimate that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the children arriving would be eligible for such remedies if competently represented—but at present, hardly any of the children are. Without such representation the chances of successfully navigating the labyrinthine legal obstacles required to secure a legal status make David’s prospects against Goliath look robust: we know that children with lawyers are nine times more likely to succeed in securing their rights than those who are unrepresented. Only 7 percent of children placed in federal immigration custody between 2007 and 2009 won their cases as a result. Unlike European countries facing similar immigration pressures, the United States before the current crisis never made access to free legal representation for unaccompanied migrant children available. As a result, in the year preceding the current surge, more than 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children were returned to their countries. (The numbers for this year are not yet available.) Competent, specialized, and properly resourced centers could provide an efficient and humane service for thousands. Many cases have similar characteristics; not all would require lengthy or individualized background research.

Third, we need generous access to lawful family reunification for long-settled U.S. residents—an acknowledgement (as exists in European countries) that long-term crime-free residence should eventually translate into a right of residence. Where a government in effect allows a population to stay in its territory for years on end, to participate in its economy, to pay taxes, and contribute to the flourishing and regeneration of neighborhoods, it should, to use a legal phrase, be “estopped” from removing that population after the lapse of time. Prolonged crime-free residence, as much as birth or inheritance, should generate legal immigration rights. An efficient visa system for children seeking to join long-settled parents would radically reduce irregular child-migration flows.

Fourth and most fundamentally, there is an urgent need for much more vigorous investment in economic development and enhancement of social and economic rights in Central America. The $3.7-billion allocated for enhanced border control—where we already have a militarized frontier with highly sophisticated equipment and combat trained personnel—would be far better spent on ambitious social regeneration projects. Educational and employment opportunities could provide an alternative to gang membership, drug addiction, or irregular migration. Creative programs in which U.S. entrepreneurs receive financial subsidies and generous support to invest in the region, to generate jobs and train local youth, would immeasurably change the socioeconomic picture and provide the most enduring solution to massive outward migration. As was demonstrated decades ago, migration flows largely reflect economic conditions on either side of the border, not military prowess at controlling the frontier. Given a choice, the vast majority of people prefer to stay at home provided they can access a reasonable quality of life. This truism applies to Central American child migrants as much as it does to anyone else.

So far we have none of these measures. Instead, in addition to the federal resources allocated for enhanced border control, local politicians are taking the law into their own hands. Texas governor Rick Perry is deploying the Texas National Guard to the border. To date only a paltry 100 lawyers and paralegals have been provided by the Department of Justice to assist the children—roughly one per 1,000 new arrivals. A mere $15 million has been allocated towards the provision of legal representation for unaccompanied children, a fraction of the new emergency fund. A new Texas-drafted bill, misleadingly entitled the HUMANE Act, proposes amendments to the current anti-trafficking legislation that would speed up the deportation of unaccompanied child migrants (“to reunify them with their families back home”), create an unworkably short time (seven days) for advancing an asylum or humanitarian claim, and establish a 72-hour window for a decision on such claims. Forty additional immigration judges would be empaneled to adjudicate these cases.

This mean-spirited set of pragmatic half-measures is a very far cry from even a minimally humane response. It gives the lie to any claim to ethical global leadership that our elected representatives might proclaim as they engage with conflicts further afield. A generous and well-coordinated engagement with the current humanitarian crisis, for once within our own borders rather than across the globe, would be a powerful way of signaling that we practice the respect for human rights that we so readily preach to others.

Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, is research director for the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies. Her most recent book is Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age (Princeton University Press).

Read more articles by: Jacqueline Bhabha

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