Unaccompanied Minors from Central America Seek Refuge in United States

By Sarah Taylor 

The American government defines refugees as “people fleeing their country of origin based on fears of persecution by reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” The term “social group” may apply to the current crisis of Central American children fleeing gang violence. However, the US government has failed to address the crisis under this classification. The resulting article demonstrates the current steps being taken to deal with an influx of youth from Central America- many of who tell graphic stories of torture, rape, murder, and fear for the well being of themselves and their families. These children, if afforded refugee status, could be settled legally in the US or another country. 

Since October 2013, more than 57,000 children under the age of 18 without their parents (also known as unaccompanied minors) have fled their homes in Central America and entered the United States through the US-Mexico border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conducted a study in which it found that 58% of these children fled their home countries due to safety concerns. When they arrive in the U.S., they often surrender to U.S. border patrol officials, who transport them to detention centers and then to temporary housing with family members already in the US or foster families. The unaccompanied minors wait until an immigration hearing before a US court, which either grants them legal residence in the United States or deports them to their home country. The US government has been slow to process the new cases. As a result the current estimated waiting time for a child to receive an immigration hearing is three years. Until the date of their hearing, according to the Migration Policy Institute, almost 90% of the young migrants live with family already established in the US, while the remaining 10% live with foster families.

Since Congress blocked President Obama’s $3.7 billion disaster relief bill, including funds to address the crisis, he has shifted his focus to an unorthodox approach. He is considering processing Honduran citizens while they still live in Honduras. The screening process would determine if they were eligible for refugee status and legal entry into the United States on humanitarian grounds before they made the dangerous journey through Mexico. If approved, the proposal would be the first in American history to provide refugee status to nationals of a country reachable by land.

According to the New York Times, the project may cost up to $47 million over two years, if 5,000 apply and about 1,750 people are accepted. If the Honduran program succeeds, the US will apply similar policies to Guatemala and El Salvador. The article raises some questions about the program’s estimates, which the Obama administration seems to have determined arbitrarily, “given that since Oct. 1 more than 16,500 unaccompanied children traveled to the United States from Honduras alone.” This preemptive-processing approach is anything but perfect.  The US predicts to receive only 5,000 applications.  The sheer volume of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Honduras has exceeded this estimate three times over.

The program would be open to Hondurans under the age of 21, many of whom suffer violence at the hands of vindictive gangs. The application process may be a step in the right direction towards resolving this issue, but the act of receiving “refugee” status may prove more difficult.

National Geographic author Scott Johnson argues that the gang violence now inherent in Central America stems in part from gang violence in America.  During the violent wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s thousands sought refuge in America.  They joined gangs in cities like Los Angeles and when deported back to their home countries, many established gangs there. This trend does not mean the Central American governments are blameless. The violent wars they waged for decades, arguably, kick-started the first wave of immigration, and the countries did or could do nothing to stop the exodus of their people.

Scott Johnson continues to argue that not only violence but also “problems such as poverty, unemployment, and drought” have played a part in the surge of Central American immigrants. An additional factor “is the perception among many migrants that U.S. immigration laws will allow them to remain in the United States if the migrants can just get to the border.”

Texas governor Rick Perry announced last week that he would send 1,000 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border to combat crime in the region. The call on troops to the Texas border is treating a symptom of the crisis rather than the source of the problem. Employing the National Guard will not end the endemic poverty, joblessness, hunger, and violence Central Americans face. It is a short-term solution to protect American domestic interests, but will not solve the crisis in the long-term.

Longtime promoter of refugee rights, Church World Service (CWS), eloquently argues for the full extension of legal rights to these unaccompanied minors. In a recent news statement, CWS argued that the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is obligated to “act in the best interest of the children while they wait for immigration proceedings.” As a result, U.S. officials send the majority of children to stay with family members “in temporary detention centers while they wait to for immigration proceedings.” Once settled in their temporary home, the children need legal counsel, education, and emotional support, among other needs.

America cannot accept every person who seeks to enter our borders, but it also cannot ignore the suffering of thousands of children seeking safety here.  These children are willing to give up everything – immediate family, friends, perhaps even their lives – in order to have a better future.   International law necessitates the US government and people respond in a decent manner.  Only then could the United States work with the governments of Central America to stop gang violence in the first place.

Image Source: NY Times

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