June 20 has been designated as World Refugee Day. On this day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, for the first time since World War II, the number of refugees worldwide has surged past 50 million. At the end of 2013 there were 51.2 million people who had been forced from their homes worldwide. This is six million more refugees than the UN reported at the end of 2012. The increase is caused in large part by the war in Syria, where 2.5 million people have become refugees outside of Syria and another 6. 5 million have been internally displaced.
A refugee is defined both internationally and within the United States as someone who is outside of their country of citizenship and “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” (United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols)
Today, the United States is experiencing the arrival of another wave of people fleeing for their lives. In recent months there has been a large increase of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America and after making the long journey across Mexico, crossing the border into the United States. On June 2, President Obama described it as an “urgent humanitarian situation,” asking Congress for $1.4 billion to deal with the influx and to create a multiagency taskforce, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate the federal response.
Most of these children (the majority are teenagers but there are also toddlers showing up with older siblings) are crossing into the United States in south Texas. The lack of adequate facilities there has caused the government to send many of the children to a processing center here in Nogales, Arizona. From here they will be sent, depending on their age and other factors, to one of three military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas.
Since 2012, the United States has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border. These children come from all over the world but the majority are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In fiscal years (FY) 2004-2011, the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the border patrol averaged around 6,000-8,000 a year. But in FY2012 the number jumped to over 13,000 and over 24,000 in FY 2013. The initial estimate for FY 2014 was about 60,000. Government estimates have been revised, projecting 90,000 in FY 2014 and 130,000 in FY 2015.
The first priority in responding to this reality is to meet the immediate physical needs of the children, to make sure that they are well fed, housed, that their medical needs are met and that they are quickly reunited with family in the United States. At the same time, we must also begin to ask the obvious questions about who these children are and why they are leaving their homes in Central America to make this dangerous journey to the United States.
Seeking answers to these questions, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent a delegation to Central America in November, 2013. In their published report, the bishops wrote, “While poverty and the desire to reunify with family to attain security are ongoing motivations to migrate, the USCCB found that an overriding symbiotic trend has played a decisive and forceful role in recent years: generalized violence in the home and at the community and state level. Coupled with a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law, the violence has threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness that has pushed children out of their communities and into forced transit situations.”
Jessica Jones, a researcher at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington DC, says “Children described terrible, harrowing journeys through their home countries and Mexico in order to reach the U.S. border. Yet the overwhelming majority of the children interviewed said they would risk the uncertain dangers of the trip north again to escape the certain dangers they face at home.”
“The normal migration patterns in this region have changed,” Leslie Velez, senior protection officer at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, explains. “These people aren’t coming here for economic opportunity. They are fleeing for their lives.”
Jennifer Podkul is an attorney and senior program officer also at the Women’s Refugee Commission. She said that the drug cartels are “recruiting at schools, they’re recruiting at youth centers; they’re recruiting and going after children who are participating in youth groups and churches. So they’re really targeting a particular age group… It’s very similar to the child-soldier phenomenon in certain countries in Africa.”
Erica Dahl-Bredine of Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador reports, “The gangs are now calling the shots. There are far more gang members than police officers in Honduras and El Salvador now.”
“The situation on the Texas border is not the result of lax border security or rumors about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; instead evidence points to the increase of violence in Central America as the main contributing factor for this phenomenon,” wrote Sister Patricia McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, in a letter to members of Congress on June 23.
This is not a migration story, this is a humanitarian crisis.
Furthermore, according to the USCCB, this crisis is not just affecting the United States; it is impacting the entire region. For example, since 2008, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, the countries surrounding Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have documented a 712% combined increase in the number of asylum applications lodged by people from these Northern Triangle countries.
While not traditional refugees like those fleeing the war in Syria, we do need to take a new look and be honest about why these children are leaving there home countries in greater and greater numbers.
Because these children are from non-contiguous countries with the United States (not Canada or Mexico), they cannot be immediately deported, but must first go before a judge. This is according to U.S. law, as well as international refugee treaties to which the U.S. is party. Procedures for helping young unaccompanied immigrants are based in part on legislation approved by Congress in 2008, and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act was mainly intended to help human trafficking victims, but one part had provisions for unaccompanied immigrants under the age of 18.
The legislation states that the youth must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.” The U.S. Health and Human Services Department is to provide for their custody and care while deportation hearings are under way. The department is to attempt to find a parent or a sponsor in the United States while providing free legal representation and a child advocate.
Unfortunately, the initial response by the Obama Administration has been more focused on appeasing its critics with get-tough political messages that prioritize streamlined enforcement over due process and humane treatment. Most recently, the White House sent a request to Congress asking, among other requests, for the authority to process minor children from Central America more expeditiously. Media reports have indicated that the goal is to deport mothers with children as quickly as possible (some reports indicate a goal of 15 days) in order to direct a message to the sending countries. This emphasis on speedy removals rather than on determining whether these children and families have a legitimate fear of persecution, and whether or where they may be safely returned to avoid further abuse or exploitation is an abandonment of fundamental principles of due process and fairness – principles that define our judicial system – and undermines the moral authority of our voice in the international community.
In the meantime, the children continue to be shuffled through a system created to process minor migrants, which begins with a stay in U.S. Border Patrol custody.
By law, children must remain in Border Patrol custody for no more than 72 hours. But because of the massive increase in child migrants, children often spend weeks in what are essentially jail cells, Podkul said. She describes these “short-term hold rooms”: “It’s a very small room, it’s just concrete, it has no window to the outside and there’s no bed. There might be a toilet but it’s in a public area.” Podkul adds that some children have no access to blankets or hot meals during this time.
Once space is found in a more child-appropriate facility, children are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the department of Health and Human Services. Some of these facilities, like the temporary one at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, are run by private non-profit companies. While in these child-specific facilities, agency officials work to track down family members or potential guardians who could take custody of the children. If a relative or guardian can be found, the child is transported to that person’s custody, at the government’s expense. Once children are placed in the custody of a guardian, they are ordered to appear in immigration court on a set date.
The situation of child migration from Central America is a complex one, with no easy answers. It is an issue that is not going away. If anything, it is going to become more urgent in the near future. For now there seems to be very little that one can do to help the children at the border. FEMA and ICE have refused to accept volunteers or even donations of clothing and toys. Perhaps the most helpful thing that we can do is help educate our families and friends about who these children and teenagers are. We can stress that the main reason that they are fleeing their countries of origin is violence and their fear of becoming another victim of the violence. Further, we can urge President Obama to respect access to due process for these youths and their requests for refugee status, following US and international laws. The United States must look for ways to address the root causes of the violence in Central America and avoid addressing the issue with an enforcement only approach.
It is also clear that these children are going to need friends in the United States in the months to come. There are many people in this country who will not support following the law and acting in the best interest of the children. Please continue to monitor the situation. Please be in touch with congress and the White House. Please stay involved. For it is in acting on behalf of the children that we live up to the best principles of our nation and of our faith.