Unaccompanied Children Overwhelm Border, But No One Knows Why

by Jason Dzubow on June 4, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, Human Rights, Immigration

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The number of unaccompanied children arriving at the Southern border has increased 92% from the same period last year, reports the New York Times

Administration officials said 47,017 children traveling without parents had been caught crossing the southwest border since [October 1, 2013]. Most are coming from three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras…. [There has also been] a spike in the numbers of girls and of children under 13 years old — including some barely old enough to walk.

DHS's new border drone, designed specifically to intercept unaccompanied minors.

DHS’s new border drone, designed specifically to intercept unaccompanied minors.

President Obama called the situation a “humanitarian crisis,” which it clearly is, and on Monday ordered FEMA to coordinate a response among several government agencies. The response will include providing food and shelter for the children, searching for relatives in the U.S., and adjudicating cases in Immigration Court. In addition, immigration enforcement agents are working to disrupt criminal smuggling networks and to dissuade potential migrants by broadcasting public service messages warning of the dangers of the journey. All this comes with a hefty price tag, of course, and the President has requested an additional $1.4 billion to deal with the crisis.

The response from advocates on both sides of the issue has been predictably predictable.

“This is a humanitarian crisis born out of the growing violence in Central America,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the migration committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These children are refugees who deserve the protection of our nation. They should not be viewed as lawbreakers.” Similarly, an Obama Administration official stated that the surge was driven primarily by conditions in Central America, including deepening poverty, an increase in sustained violence, and by many youths’ desires to reunite with parents in the U.S.

On the other side, the indefatigable Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee Robert W. Goodlatte opined, “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America.”

As to the argument that the surge is a result of increased violence in Central America, the (admittedly limited) data does not exactly bear that out. According to the latest information from the UN, between 2008 and 2012, homicide rates increased dramatically in Honduras, but actually fell in El Salvador and Guatemala. More recent data for El Salvador suggests that murder rates continued to decline in 2013, but by the end of the year–when a truce between two large gangs fell apart–began to increase. On the other hand, a recent report that attempted to parse out the effect of violence and corruption on migration found some correlation between increased violence and increased migration (other major factors affecting migration include the age of the migrant and her connection to friends and family who have already immigrated). At least for people coming from Guatemala and El Salvador, there does not seem to be an obvious correlation between increased violence and increased migration.

On the other side of the debate, Rep. Goodlatte argues that lax immigration enforcement is serving as a “pull,” which incentivizes young people to come to the U.S. Given that President Obama has deported more people than any other president, Rep. Goodlatte’s claim is, well, ridiculous.

So if it is not increased violence or lax enforcement, what is causing the surge in unaccompanied minors?

The short answer is, I don’t know and neither does anyone else. However, if I had to guess, I’d say that the main reason is that undocumented young people who reach the U.S. have a good chance of obtaining lawful status (through the Special Immigrant Juvenile program, asylum, T visas, etc.). As word of this has gotten out, more people come here. In other words, there is a strong “pull” factor at play for many migrants. Now don’t get me wrong, there are also very powerful push factors, with gang and cartel violence at the top of the list. Also, the fact that the journey here–especially for unaccompanied minors–is very dangerous, reduces the “pull” factor to some degree. The bottom line is, we don’t really know and we need more data about why young people are coming here.

One way to obtain this data–and I suppose this is a radical solution–is to ask the people who have come here. I imagine they know why they made the journey, and if asked, most of them will tell us. Another method is to make public and accessible statistical data about the number of people coming here, where they are coming from, what types of relief they are seeking, and the outcomes of their cases. Such data can be correlated with information about crime and violence in the sending countries, and this might give us some insight into the reasons behind the migration. With such information, we will be better able to make more appropriate policy choices and hopefully reduce the number of children coming here.

Obtaining better data should (I think) be pretty easy, and either Congress or the President could make it happen. The Executive Branch publishes some immigration data, but it is difficult to access and very incomplete. I really do not understand why DHS and DOJ don’t do a better job of organizing and presenting statistical information about immigrants. And if they won’t act, Congress could. But for all his huffing and puffing, Rep. Goodlatte has thus far shown little desire to improve the situation, and seems interested only in political hyperbole. Perhaps if he could muster some maturity and actually take some concrete steps, we might move closer to understanding what is going on. And, as they say, knowing is half the battle.

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