Editor’s note: In 2010, just over 18,000 unaccompanied minors were detained by U.S. immigration authorities crossing the U.S-Mexico border. The number spiked to crisis levels in 2014, but then decreased. Now the numbers are rising again, with more than 72,000 unaccompanied children apprehended this year as of August. Lauren R. Aronson, an associate clinical professor of law and the director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the College of Law, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the rise in unaccompanied minors.
What accounts for the recent spike in unaccompanied minors trying to cross into the U.S.?
There are a handful of reasons such as poverty, natural disasters, the rise of gang recruitment, but the biggest is that the countries where the majority of unaccompanied minors are coming from – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico – are dangerous. In terms of violence, their home countries are worse than Iraq. In fact, some estimate that Honduras has nine times as many homicides per capita as Iraq. Guatemala, the least violent of the four countries, is still at least twice as violent as Iraq.
So these unaccompanied minors – children, in other words – are effectively escaping war zones. The poverty is so immense, and the desperation level is so high that families are willing to take extraordinary risks to come or to send their children here.
Parents will take great risks to afford their children the chance, however small, to have not just a better future, but to have any future at all. That’s what many Americans fundamentally don’t understand about this issue. Mothers and fathers don’t send children on a dangerous journey on a whim. The fact that they send them is demonstrative of just how afraid parents are to let children remain in their home country.
There’s anecdotal evidence that “coyotes” – human smugglers – are capitalizing on political rhetoric and telling people that President Trump is going to follow through on his promise to build a border wall. They say, “After it’s built, you won’t be able to get over it. So if you want to go, you have to go now.” If you want to send your child, or if you’re already in the U.S. and you want to bring your child over, it feels like it’s now or never. The coyotes did something similar in 2014 when President Obama wanted to shift to more immigrant-friendly deportation policies that prioritized bad actors rather than children and families. They used that to their advantage, which in part led to the increase in children crossing the border.
My own theory is that, in the early 2000s, young adults in Central America were coming to the U.S. because things were bad in their home countries then – aftermath of civil war, earthquakes, and increased gang recruitment and violence. They came to the U.S. to work, left children with family members, and sent money home so the children could eat and go to school. Now, those children are older and the parents or other extended family members want to reunite with them in the U.S. I think that’s partially what drove the unaccompanied minor surge in 2014, and I think that could also be part of what is continuing now.
After the 2014 crisis, the Obama administration took a number of steps to address and mitigate the surge in unaccompanied minors, including increasing enforcement resources and detention space for families, and creating a new child and family court docket. Why not continue with these already-successful measures?
The truth is, the number of unaccompanied minors has been growing since the 1990s. Frankly, we’ve been in triage mode since 2012. We’ve been creating more facilities, but they’re mostly inhumane, so I wouldn’t call that a success by any means.
In 2014, we didn’t have the resources to deal with the number of children that were coming in. That was the breaking point. Because of the Flores Agreement, which stipulates that the government can detain children for no more than 20 days, there are certain things you have to provide children that you don’t have to provide to adults. They can’t be treated like adults because they’re not adults. The needs are different, so the facilities that were available to house larger groups were just not equipped to deal with kids.
But in reality, the Flores Agreement is more aspirational than anything. The average stay for children in detention centers is 57 days. Back in 2012-14, there were even more kids in cages. Even though that’s something we associate with President Trump, it was something that happened during President Obama’s tenure in office. Obviously, neither president has done enough to address this issue. And the byzantine legal framework that we have now should have been addressed five years or even 20 years ago, and that’s really what led us to where we are today.
The bottom line is immigration law doesn’t do a great job of taking care of unaccompanied children. At the same time, I don’t know how you solve the problem without a complete overhaul of our immigration system.
What might be a better way of dealing with unaccompanied minors?
What could potentially help is if our government provided attorneys for these kids. In immigration court, there is no guaranteed right to counsel. That alone could really help clear out the court docket. We have over a million immigration cases backlogged in our system.
But based on our country’s status as a leader in protecting and safeguarding human rights in our own and other countries, there absolutely should be some other form of relief created for children and others fleeing this extreme violence. In this administration alone, there have been so many attacks on the asylum framework, and asylum is one of the only options for unaccompanied minors to stay in the U.S. As the attacks on the system by the Trump administration continue, their chances for getting asylum, which were already remote, become that much smaller.
We can’t just provide their home countries with aid and expect immigration to the U.S. to stop. This is a humanitarian crisis. The saddest part about this is, these children are in desperate need for protection. They’re not getting it in their home countries, and as our current laws stand, they’re not getting it here, either.