Is hope of citizenship or endemic violence driving migrant children to cross the border?

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained trying to cross into the U.S. since October. Most hail from areas rife with poverty, violence and smugglers. Judy Woodruff gets debate from Marshall Fitz of the Center for American Progress and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies about what is driving these children and how to respond to the crisis.

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    For more on what's causing today's circumstances, and possible remedies, we turn to Marshall Fitz. He's director of immigration policy with the Center for American progress. It's a left-leaning think tank in Washington. And Jessica Vaughan, she's the director for policy studies at the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    Marshall Fitz, let me start with you. I want to ask you both this question. What's your understanding of why we are seeing this big influx of children, especially from Central America?

    MARSHALL FITZ, Center for American Progress: Well, it's clear that the major drivers behind this recent influx are the conditions in the sending countries.

    We know this for a fact because they are dispersing throughout the region. It's a regional crisis. There's a 712 percent increase in asylum applications in Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica. So, the immigrants are leaving those three countries because of the endemic violence, the weak institutional government, and lack of protections for the civil society there.

    And it's happening now because that violence is escalating. Honduras is the murder capital of the world.


    And in fact, we have a — I think we have a graphic to show our audience, what is it, 90 — the highest number of deaths per 100,000 people, followed — the third country in that list is El Salvador — or, rather, the fourth is El Salvador and the fifth being Guatemala.


    Is Guatemala, yes.


    And these are the countries that are sending so many of these children.

    Jessica Vaughan, what is your sense of, your understanding of what is sending most of these children?

    JESSICA VAUGHAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Well, there certainly is poverty and violence in the three countries that are sending most of the people across the border in South Texas now, but many of them who are coming are not actually coming from the violent areas of those countries.

    They're coming from all over, rural areas, areas distant from the violence. What we do know from Border Patrol intelligence, from immigration agencies' assessment, from all of the interviews that the migrant themselves have done with reporters, from their own government officials, is that the main reason that they're coming is because they know that they will be allowed to stay, for the most part.

    And that's what's driving this at this time. They have been told by friends and family who have already come here illegally what they can say and that if they come with kids or if they send their kids, that the chances are almost certain that they will be allowed to stay here.


    And, Marshall Fitz, there has been reporting to this effect, that the word has spread among many of these communities.


    The most thorough study that we have got on what's driving these kids to flee their own countries and their own — leave their own families is from the UNHCR. And they interviewed more than 400 kids.


    This is the U.N. international agency.


    Sorry. U.N. international agency.

    They spent, though, a couple hours with each of these kids. And only a small handful of them mentioned anything about getting immigration status here in the country. They all talked about the violence that they were fleeing.

    I'm sure that there are misperceptions that are being fomented by smuggling operations. And we are 100 percent supportive of cracking down on those types of operations. But the real reason people are leaving those countries is because of the violence and the conditions that they're experiencing in their home country.


    But Jessica — excuse me — Jessica Vaughan, you were just saying but some of them or many of them are coming from areas where the violence is not an issue? Is that what I understood you to say?


    That's according to information that was released by the Border Patrol, and also the Border Patrol interviews all of these migrants at the time that they surrender to the Border Patrol.

    And what they're telling the Border Patrol, 95 percent of them have said that they're coming because they heard that they would be allowed to stay. And, in fact, that's not a false rumor or a misperception. It is, in fact, what's been happening.

    Only 3 percent of the Central Americans who have come into contact with the Border Patrol in recent months has actually been sent back. So the vast majority of them are allowed to stay and are allowed to resettle in the country.


    Well, Marshall Fitz, we know there is a different process because of the law for dealing with children or any immigrant coming from Central America. Is that correct? Because of a law that was passed several years ago.


    Under President George Bush.

    It's a law that was designed to ensure that unaccompanied kids or kids who are arriving here without a family member, without a parent, that they are eligible to go through the full screening process to ensure that they are — that they are or are not eligible for protection.

    What Jessica says about them being eligible — allowed to stay is only a function of the fact that our immigration courts are so backlogged. That's something I think she and I can probably agree on, which is that there is very much a need to infuse resources into the system to ensure that cases can get adjudicated more expeditiously.

    That is something that is a longstanding problem. Congress has starved the immigration courts of resources for decades now.


    Jessica, how much — Jessica Vaughan, how much of a part of the problem is that and this fact, as we mentioned a minute ago, that this law was passed under President Bush saying that children, unaccompanied minors coming in from Central America had to go through a hearing process before they could be deported?


    Well, the law that we're talking about here was passed at the initiative of certain Democratic members of Congress who wanted to create a process for children who were being trafficked into the United States.

    And, clearly, that's not the case with most of the individuals who are a part of this surge. About two-thirds of the people who have surrendered to the Border Patrol are actually entire families, so they are not unaccompanied kids, and the vast majority of the kids who have turned themselves over to the Border Patrol are coming here to join family members who are already here.

    So, it's — once they rejoin their family members, they are no longer unaccompanied, and I think that it makes sense that they shouldn't necessarily benefit from a procedure that was set up to handle the most difficult cases of kids who were actually trafficked.

    It's not trafficking when parents pay a smuggler to bring their children to the United States, and then are — are — get to rejoin with their child with no questions asked either about the smuggling or about their own legal status here.


    What about that?


    And these are things that the president can address without changing the law.


    Let me ask you Marshall about that.

    Marshall Fitz, what about that?


    Well, I — Jessica is making some assertions that just aren't grounded in the facts.

    All of the reporting that has been done so far by international — by independent agencies, not by Border Patrol, show that somewhere upwards of 58 percent or 60 percent of the kids are entitled to some form of protection. And we're seeing that, that many of these kids are getting granted either asylum or special immigrant juvenile protection, or they're getting T or U visas.

    So the facts are that these kids are eligible for status because they are either fleeing traumatic situations in their home countries or they're being trafficked along the way, which is, again, another very serious problem.

    The unaccompanied minors should be — we shouldn't be treating these kids like they're FedEx packages and trying to just send them back immediately. We have got to treat them humanely. And that's, I think, what most of us in the advocacy community are looking for.


    Right. We're going to have to leave it there.

    I just want to say, the White House was quoted today as saying most unaccompanied children arriving at this border are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief that would prevent them from seeing back — sending them back home. So, that's just one — one comment that came from the administration today.

    But we want to leave it there. We thank you very much, Jessica Vaughan and Marshall Fitz.


    Thanks for having me.


    Thank you.

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