Violence in central america drives child migrants to the US border. Child migrants fleeing to the United States has led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The vast majority of these migrants come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – all struggling with levels of violence tantamount to a political insurgency. Street gangs have turned Honduras into the country with the highest murder rate in the world (the murder rate is now 30% higher than in Iraq in 2007, at the height of the conflict). More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended entering the US illegally since October 2013, creating what president Barack Obama has called an ‘urgent humanitarian situation’. Some of them have died on the journey.
At a meeting of Central American leaders in Panama in July, the secretary of state, John Kerry, said:
‘Tens of thousands of young children are being exploited and are being put at great danger… The lives of children cannot be put at risk in this way.’
Under current US law, there are two policies for children who arrive in the country without a parent or guardian: children arriving from the contiguous countries are screened by border patrol to determine if they are victims of trafficking or if they would face prosecution if returned home. Children from other countries are apprehended by border control and placed into deportation proceedings and within 72 hours are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR provides shelter and care for the children and places them with a family member or a sponsor while they await an immigration hearing.
As a result of years of underfunding of the immigration court system, the waiting times to see an immigration judge have increased. The children are not guaranteed counsel and less than one-third in pending immigration cases have been able to secure legal representation. Immigration judges believe that everyone should have access to counsel as this would enable them to conduct cases more efficiently.
The White House recently announced plans to introduce fast-track deportations and allocated $116m to fund the cost of transporting unaccompanied children back to their home countries. Humanitarian organisations in the US and in Central America are concerned that the most vulnerable migrants are being returned to situations they are desperately trying to escape. The UN high commission for refugees has called for Central American migrants to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict.
Nevertheless, Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of overseeing a systemic failure of immigration policy and are demanding tougher action against illegal immigrants. Efforts to pursue wider immigration reforms in Congress recently collapsed and the crisis has deepened.