The influx of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Central America via Mexico raises a pressing question: What to do with them now? It’s an acute concern, given that shelters are overcrowded and the tide isn’t slowing.
Experts from an array of disciplines who convened Friday at the University of San Diego said another key question should be: What is the long-term solution? The crisis’ roots are deep and its tail will be long, they said.
“This is a regional, complex and multifaceted problem with no quick fix,” M. Aryah Somers, a lawyer and consultant on children’s issues, wrote in her presentation to the attendees of a daylong campus conference on the subject. The event was organized by the university’s Trans-Border Institute.
Unaccompanied migrants who are younger than 18 when they arrive in the United States aren’t eligible for amnesty or eventual citizenship, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said this week in reminding the public about federal immigration laws. They’re typically sent back to their families abroad or put in long-term foster care arrangements while awaiting deportation.
This year, an estimated 90,000 such children are expected to reach the United States. The long-term annual average is 5,000 per year, according to U.S. officials.
The recent surge has sent U.S. immigration leaders scrambling to shelter and find temporary sponsors for these children, most of whom have sought entry at the Mexican border with Texas because that’s the shortest route from Central America. The White House has called for $1.6 billion in additional funding to house and process the youngsters, along with $166 million in related funds for more Homeland Security staffing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Friday, some panelists at the conference discussed resources such as foster care and legal representation. Others addressed challenges in providing services to traumatized children. Still others outlined the systemic conditions causing children to flee their homeland.
They cited previous waves of child migration as a precedent for what could happen if these youngsters remain in limbo for years, only to be ultimately deported.
Their messages overlapped in one regard: Child migration is a complex topic that defies being wrapped up in sound bites and headlines.
Speakers at the conference said beyond looking at the immediate needs of these youngsters, officials must consider the need for holistic and long-term solutions.
They stressed that like previous waves of migration from Central America, the current exodus stems not only from poverty but also a broad set of geopolitical factors. Some of the children are sent northward by their parents or other relatives for a variety of reasons. Others are fleeing violence that has killed many people in their villages or towns, including their family members.
Somers, the child immigration lawyer, presented a Venn diagram of interlocking rings that portray the assortment of reasons for child migration. Researchers who have interviewed these youngsters said it’s usually a combination of causes that spur the northward journeys.
For example, a look at the economic history of El Salvador offers one perspective on why children there are heading to the United States.
David Pedersen, an associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego, explained Friday that traditionally, El Salvadoran immigrants send remittances to their families back home — typically $200 to $300 per month. This money goes toward the purchase of staples such as food and clothing.
Some households don’t have a relative in the United States, he said, so they try to compensate by sending their children from the countryside to the cities to earn money as domestic workers. These jobs sometimes expose the minors to rape or other forms of exploitation.
Over the years, some of those underage workers have fled north. Or they have become adults and saved enough money to send their own children to pursue a better life in the United States, Pedersen said.
He said the roots of today’s child-migrant crisis originated in the 1950s, when El Salvador exploited all of its arable land for a cash-crop boom. Coffee and cotton were in high demand at the time, especially in Japan.
“Space for growing staples contracted massively,” leading to a drop in the quality of life in rural areas. The countryside migrants who left during that generation are the people now sending remittances from the U.S., he said.
Once the unaccompanied child migrants present themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border, customs and human-services officials try to determine if the minors have parents or adult guardians. Speakers at the Friday conference said it can be a challenge to verify whether the so-called uncle coming to pick up a 12-year-old girl is or isn’t a human trafficker. And even if he is an uncle, they said, how do officials ensure that he won’t neglect, abuse or later abandon the child?
Also difficult is the process of obtaining relevant information from each arriving youngster.
“Imagine talking to an 11-year-old about being raped by her father. It’s not going to happen in a one-hour interview, and sometimes that’s all I have,” said Matthew Cannon, director of the children’s program with Casa Cornelia Law Center. Fear of authorities and frightening memories are reasons why some children clam up. Others are coached by coyotes to tell a false story and stick to it.
Whatever the circumstances, Cannon said, dealing with these cases “breaks my heart.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org (619) 797-6312 Twitter: @roxanapopescu
Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
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