Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Should be Done About Child Migrants?

Scott Wojciechowski / US Navy / CC BY 2.0

This post is also available in: Spanish

Q: The U.S. government says its agents have picked up some 52,000 unaccompanied children at the southern border this fiscal year, twice the 2013 number. Citing the high costs of dealing with the influx, Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) last month suggested cutting off aid and repealing free-trade agreements with Mexico and Central American countries to spur them to do more, while other congressional leaders cast the issue as a humanitarian crisis. What is behind the spike in unaccompanied children crossing the border? What should the United States and countries of origin do about the situation? How seriously is the issue affecting relations between the United States and its neighbors?

A: Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “There’s no doubt that we are now facing a grave crisis on the Mexico-U.S. border with unaccompanied migrant children. It is rooted in the inability of the U.S. Congress to move forward in accomplishing comprehensive immigration reform; in the political and public opinion unwillingness in Mexico and other nations in Central America to recognize that they are also co-responsible for finding holistic solutions to trans-border flows; and in the failure of all nations, from the United States all the way down to the Central American republics, of jointly developing a paradigm over these years of legislative impasse to address migrant flows holistically, regionally and in a forward-leaning fashion. But equally troubling is the bumper-sticker language that has arisen in certain corners of the public debate in the United States regarding this humanitarian and public policy challenge. Terms like ‘surge,’ ‘illegal children’ or ‘invasion’ that have peppered news coverage in certain media outlets and statements by lawmakers and local officials point to a lack of understanding as to what causes these flows and why they are occurring. That some would also, as a policy response, resort to knee-jerk tub-thumping and a simplistic reaction of rolling out the language of sanctions on completely unrelated issues like trade agreements is not only a sign that they confuse apples for oranges; it entails a profound failure to understand that economic opportunity and labor markets, human dreams and aspirations, strife and misery—and organized crime that preys on all of the above—will continue to trump a dysfunctional immigration system that urgently requires revamping. It is profoundly preoccupying that this crisis may be the last nail in the coffin for comprehensive immigration reform this year.”

A: Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR): “The United States should use all diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal to encourage those countries to stem the flow of illegal aliens to the United States. But, ultimately, we cannot control what those foreign governments do. What we do control are the policies of our own government. Under the Obama administration, those policies have encouraged people to violate our laws. This administration has unconstitutionally decided that it will not enforce many of our immigration laws. Moreover, the surge in younger illegal aliens to the United States can be traced directly to the president’s 2012 unauthorized Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty for illegal aliens who entered the country as minors. The message DACA sent was that the United States feels morally obligated to provide legal status to younger illegal aliens, and the number of such illegal aliens grew exponentially. To end the immigration chaos, the president must terminate the DACA program he never had authority to implement in the first place. Congress must use its constitutional authority to force the president to enforce all immigration laws, not just the ones he likes. And aliens who show up at our borders must be given expedited hearings to determine if they have any grounds for admission, and be swiftly repatriated if they do not. Americans do not lack for compassion for our neighbors in Central America. But large-scale resettlement of Central Americans in this country would only impede needed reforms in the region, while imposing untenable burdens on the American people.

A: Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, AC (IMUMI) in Mexico: “The migration of unaccompanied girls, boys and adolescents to the United States is not new. However, the upsurge in violence and poverty in the countries of origin, as well as the obstacles to their being reunited with their parents in the United States, have made this population compelled to migrate to safeguard their personal integrity and seek better living conditions. We are not just talking about numbers, but about a humanitarian crisis that is affecting the lives of boys and girls who are facing a situation of deprivation of liberty and nonexistent respect for their human rights. It is urgent to seek coordinated actions, of a regional character, directed at addressing the structural causes that today are reflected in the increase in migration, mainly of women, girls, boys and adolescents, and the effects, from approaches that are people-centered and consider the best interests of the children. Such actions will only be effective if they are taken regionally rather than as individual countries. It is urgent to ensure that in migration processes, appropriate measures are taken to identify possible needs for special protection of girls, boys and adolescents, including the family unit, from the analysis of the best interests of the child, and not opting for de facto deportation; as well as strengthening consular protection in the countries of transit and/or destination, which results in the well-being of their citizens and not in the control of migration flows that have left families trapped between borders.”

A: Robert N. Kaplan, president and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation: “The surge in unaccompanied minors migrating from Central America is due to a number of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that motivate them to leave their home communities. The root of the problem is a severe escalation in violence and crime in recent months and years, combined with a dearth of economic opportunities for a growing population of young people. Despite some progress reducing poverty over the last decade, some 25 to 30 percent of the population of Honduras and Guatemala live on less than $2 per day, and too many parents still lament the lack of prospects for their children at home. They also fear their children will become part of the sky-high statistics on local violence or succumb to pressure from gangs. What’s needed is a holistic approach that combines critical judicial reform and law enforcement with redoubled efforts to strengthen economic and social anchors in migrant-sending communities. This means investing thoughtfully in community-led initiatives that create economic opportunities, strengthen resilience to crime and violence, build civic engagement and ensure inclusion of marginalized groups. If we can help these communities thrive and support their home-grown efforts to offer a place for youth to develop as community leaders, workers and micro-entrepreneurs, then talented young people will choose to stay home and contribute as good citizens. Without investment in community-based organizations that help kids build a future in their own neighborhoods, they and their parents will likely continue to see migration as their best, though still bad, option.”

A: Carlos Arrazola, editor of Plaza Pública de Guatemala: “The phenomenon of migrant children is the result of the lack of importance that the Central American countries place on their children and adolescents. It is not entirely accurate, as some international media have circulated, that the minors who have been detained in the United States and who Barack Obama’s government plans to deport, have undertaken the dangerous trip to be reunited with their immigrant parents who reside illegally in the United States, persuaded by human traffickers who guarantee them that they will not be deported. Dozens of children who have failed in the attempt to reach the ‘American dream’ have recognized that what they were searching for was to escape the poverty, humiliation, inequality, lack of opportunities and violence that they suffer in their countries. The 15-year old boy originally from the impoverished department of Huehuetenango, in the west of Guatemala, whose body was found days ago in Texas, according to his relatives, traveled in search of a decent job that would allow him to pay for the medications that his sick mother needs. From Honduras and El Salvador, stories abound of children that are fleeing the criminal violence generated by gangs. Central American governments should assume their constitutional responsibilities to guarantee the well-being and development of their citizens, principally of minors, and not, as has occurred for several years, encourage and promote immigration as a way to guarantee the maintenance of their economies through family remittances. That is, the states should promote public policies to combat poverty, generate employment and security, among others, to provide their inhabitants opportunity for development. Washington, for its part, should approve without further delay the immigration reform Obama has proposed to ease the deportation fears of thousands of immigrants.”

Suggested Content

A Conversation with Bill Richardson

As the global financial crisis continues to alter US relations with the hemisphere, greater engagement in the region remains critical to US interests.