In a 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated that his administration had gotten illegal border crossings down to “their lowest levels in 40 years.” CNN Politics later researched this claim and concurred, saying the President’s comments “appear to accurately summarize the current state of illegal immigration.” The caveat, noted the CNN article, is the impossibility of accurately determining how many illegal crossings have occurred. It is believed that half of all such attempts are caught. The number of children caught crossing the border without a parent or guardian, however, has skyrocketed.
The numbers certainly back up the notion that there has been a major reduction in illegal border crossings. In 2012, some 356,000 individuals were apprehended trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. This is the second lowest number since 1972. The lowest number since 1972 was in 2011. Excluding a small uptick in 2005, the numbers have been steadily going down since 2000. That year, 1.8 million people were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico. In stark contrast, the number of unaccompanied minors who have been apprehended trying to get into the U.S. is ten-fold what it was in 2011.
Some federal authorities are projecting that they will apprehend about 74,000 children in 2014. In 2011, they apprehended close to 6,500. Given the radical overall decrease in illegal immigration, why has the number of children trying to get into the U.S. increased so dramatically? Eric L. Olson, co-editor of the book Organized Crime in Central America: The Northern Triangle and Associate Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., says that many of these children are fleeing from violence in their home country. One in six is younger than 12 years old. According to the federal organization responsible for overseeing shelters for youth who have entered the U.S. without a legal guardian, 81 percent of the children sheltered by the Administration for Children & Families in 2012 came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. These countries make up an area known as the Northern Triangle, a geographic designation indicated by the shape they make and the fact that they are located in the northern tier of Central America.
Since the mid-1980s, Olson has been visiting a community outside the capital of Honduras. He has been doing this for the last 30 years mainly to ask people what life is like there. Olson stated that currently there are six different extortion groups controlling the community. What citizens call extortion, the gangs call taxes. These taxes must be paid even by those supplementing their meager incomes by selling tortillas or bubble gum. The local police are generally unwilling to take on these violent street gangs, so perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. Children in this community, who grow up in desperate poverty coupled with a violent, criminal environment, often feel their choices are limited. They can either flee their community or join a gang. For children, paying taxes to remain uninvolved in the gangs is usually not a viable option. Being a gang member in these communities is often a zero-sum game. If one is not with a gang, he is viewed as being against it. Because of the automatic suspicion aroused by trying to remain unaffiliated with gangs, children join and then participate in them as a way to stay alive. It also gives them a sense of belonging and identity.
If a child chooses to flee, he or she can try to move to another part of the country. Most, though, want to go to the U.S. because they think things will be better there. If they begin their journey to the U.S. from some place within the Northern Triangle, a perilous journey lies ahead of them, and there is a good chance that they will be subjected to the same situations they were fleeing such as murder, trafficking, rape, and extortion.
Author Sonia Nazario wrote a book about a child making the odyssey from Central America to the U.S. It is titled Enrique’s Story and is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles published by the L.A. Times. Nazario says that kids, because they have no money to travel to the U.S. border by any other mode of transportation, have to hop on one of the railway trains that move from Central America through Mexico. They either sit on top or stand between railway cars gripping onto train’s side. There are several nicknames for these trains such as El Train De La Muerte, which means the train of death, and The Beast. Sometimes people, including children, fall off and lose a limb or their life. In addition to the dangers of the train, there are bandits who work the train route as well as corrupt cops. Also, according to Nazario, the Zetas drug cartel controls the tops of the railway cars and kidnaps some 18,000 Central Americans per year. Not all of the kidnap victims are children, but the Zetas cartel prefers kids because children are assumed to have relatives in the U.S. who will be able to pay $3,000 to $5,000 in extortion fees. If the fee is not paid, the child is killed.
Children who make it through Mexico but are apprehended at the U.S. border are detained and must appear in immigration court. They are not entitled to counsel, and most cannot pay for a private lawyer. If no pro bono lawyer represents them, they must stand alone again, this time before an immigration judge. There is no lower age limit for this requirement. Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has witnessed what she termed the surreal circumstance of seeing two- and three-year-old children, likely abandoned by their smugglers at the border, standing by themselves in front of an immigration judge. If a child has a lawyer, there is a much greater possibility to seek relief through a few very specific programs that currently exist under U.S. Immigration Law. Young said she once counted, in an Los Angeles immigration court, two children who had representation out of twenty five.
Roberto Suro, who has 35 years of experience in the field of immigration as a researcher, author, and journalist, notes that the phenomenon of Central American children running to the U.S. from the violence of their home country has not gotten the attention it might have. These children, states Suro, have been lost in Obama’s focus on overall immigration reform. Repeated pleadings have been made to Obama to use his executive authority to deal with different categories of people under special circumstances, which the children of Central America would qualify as, but because he wants to see overall reform first, Obama has stated that he will not use his executive power to provide relief for special categories of people. Meanwhile, the number of children’s lives hanging in the balance of this political stalemate continues to grow exponentially.
By Donna Westlund