Is the U.S. “Failing” Migrant Children Fleeing Violence?
Day after day, a white van pulled up at an egg farm in central Ohio and unloaded several young Guatemalans, most of them just teenagers.
They were forced to work 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week loading and unloading crates of chickens, cleaning their coops and clipping their beaks. At night, they bedded down in unheated, rat-infested trailers without working toilets, kept down under threat of violence by traffickers.
The young migrants had been apprehended in the United States, then handed over to the traffickers, who posed as close friends and family members willing to take them in while they awaited their immigration hearings.
The traffickers seized the money they made on the farm, threatening to harm or kill them and their families back home if they resisted, according to an unsealed federal indictment.
The indictment said the traffickers targeted teens because they were easier to control. They were also easier to smuggle — and they worked harder than adults. Three traffickers have since pled guilty; a spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office in northern Ohio said a criminal investigation was ongoing.
The teens in Ohio are among the rising number of underage migrants fleeing chaotic violence in Central America — primarily Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The figures have declined from the record set in 2014, when more than 68,000 young people were apprehended along the southwest border. But the current influx is still significantly higher than it was a decade earlier. And already this year, the numbers are climbing again.
From October 2015 through January of this year, nearly 20,500 young migrants were apprehended, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), more than doubling the number of unaccompanied children picked up during the same period the previous year. Experts anticipate the number of children will increase as the weather warms.
The government has been struggling to keep up. A string of agencies are charged with ensuring children are properly screened for refugee or asylum claims, and ultimately transferred to safe homes until their cases can be heard in court. But the crush of arrivals has strained the system. Like the teenagers in Ohio, children who slip through the cracks risk falling prey to human traffickers or other abuse in the U.S., or being deported home — sometimes to their deaths.
“We are failing these kids,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., at a Senate hearing on the issue last month. He cited the case of a Salvadoran teen named Mario who fled armed groups who had assaulted him and killed his friend, only to have a U.S. immigration official toss out the police report the teenager had brought with him to prove his case. Leahy said he hoped the recent concerns raised in Congress “results in the additional resources necessary to actually protect them.”
Most of the children coming to the U.S. now are boys in their mid-to-late teens, although younger boys and girls have also been apprehended.
“It’s not surprising, if you look at what’s going on in the region,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer for migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, of the rising numbers of young migrants. Homicide rates in all three countries remain extraordinarily high. El Salvador is now considered the murder capital of the world, surpassing Honduras. Gangs there operate with impunity, relying on violence and sexual assault to force compliance. They order young boys to join up, and harm or kill them or their families if they don’t.
At the Border
Once apprehended in the U.S., children are kept for no more than three days by CBP officials, who are charged with screening them for potential asylum or refugee claims. As they do with adults, officials are required to ask children whether they have a fear of returning home. But Podkul said persuading traumatized children to share their stories with authority figures can be difficult.
“Our feeling is that a Border Patrol agent who found a child in the desert and put them in handcuffs is not the proper person to be screening them,” she said.
In the past, advocacy groups have complained that Border Patrol officials don’t always conduct these screenings appropriately, charges the agency said it would investigate. In testimony last month, the agency’s deputy chief, Ronald Vitiello, said its agents are aware that unaccompanied minors are vulnerable and in need of “special consideration and care.”
“CBP continues to do everything we can to safely, humanely and efficiently process and transfer [migrant children] … into a safe and secure environment that is in the best interest of the child, pursuant to the requirements of the law,” he said.
With a Sponsor, Alone in Court
After their apprehension, minors are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes roughly one month to find a sponsor, such as a parent, other relative or close friend who can care for the youth until their immigration hearing. The kids’ court dates can be years away, since the immigration courts currently are backlogged by nearly a half million cases.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found that since the influx of minors began, the resettlement office has added four times the number of beds, 81 new facilities (it now has 140 in total), and tried to expedite the process for screening sponsors. But the watchdog also found that the office “had not yet updated its plans to meet future needs.”
It also found that it wasn’t consistently monitoring the organizations it contracts with to care for the kids before they’re placed in a home. And once they’re settled with a parent or other sponsor, there’s often little to no follow up to ensure they’re safe. In 2014, Health and Human Services conducted post-release checks on only about 6,500 children, a spokeswoman recently told The Washington Post.
The office concurred with the watchdog’s recommendations for improving its process. Last week, Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the DHHS’s Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the refugee office, said: “We are continuing to assess the program in order to make both operational and policy improvements, identifying the most efficient ways to use our appropriated funds.”
But even when children are safely housed, navigating the complex immigration court system is complicated for unaccompanied kids, especially since most of them don’t speak English. Only about half have an attorney, according to federal data compiled by Syracuse University researchers. Lawyers matter: Only one-third of those with legal representation were ordered deported, compared to 77 percent of those without it.
Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced bills that would ensure children have legal counsel before they appear before an immigration judge, but it’s unclear how much traction either bill will get.
The Root of the Problem
The U.S. has pressed Mexico to step up efforts to apprehend migrants before they reach its border, which has reduced some inflows. Between July 2014 and June 2015, arrests by Mexican authorities spiked by 71 percent.
The White House has also asked for $750 million in its 2017 budget to fund what it describes as a “long-term, comprehensive approach” to bolster Central American governments in the hope of easing the crisis. Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would increase the number of Central American migrants it would accept as refugees, although he has yet to offer specifics.
Experts say that young migrants are likely to keep coming in large numbers, possibly for years — in addition to the large numbers of children with parents fleeing the same violence.
“The root of the problem is still not being addressed,” said Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group for unaccompanied minors. “As long as these children are attacked, threatened, even murdered by these gangs, or whatever criminal element is controlling their community, and their governments aren’t doing anything — or can’t do anything to help them — you’re still going to have these kids coming.”