The humanitarian crisis on America’s doorstep

Why tens of thousands of children from Central America are being sent on a perilous, potentially deadly journey to the U.S. border
Luiza Ch. Savage and David Agren
After an irregular entry into Mexico near Ciudad Hidalgo, to move north through the country, to the US border, many Central and South American migrants begin their journey in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mexico, the railhead of the freight train known as ’La Bestia’ (The Beast), climbing atop of the rail cars, exposed to the elements and extortion by criminal gangs lying in wait along the route. Entire families, including women and children, who must be helped up to the top of the railcars, travel together on the ’Beast’.

Central American Migrant Movement on Mexico's Southerm Border

Jimmy Sánchez is a slight, shy, 13-year-old boy who last saw his mother six years ago when she left him behind in San Salvador to find work as a waitress in Miami. She sent money back to Jimmy’s grandmother, who cared for him in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Street gangs called maras regularly recruit schoolboys here; those who resist are often killed, sometimes dumped in mass graves. Earlier this year, a temporary truce unravelled between rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and Calle 18, unleashing new rounds of killings, kidnappings and extortion. One day this spring, they came for Jimmy. “Armed people knocked on the door,” Jimmy recalled quietly. “They said, ‘Pay or we’ll kill you or a family member.’ ”

In June, his mother sent for him. Jimmy boarded a bus bound for Mexico, the first leg of a dangerous 4,000-km journey to the U.S.

He was not alone. Kids like Jimmy are now arriving on America’s southwest border in shocking numbers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has detained more than 57,000 unaccompanied children so far this year—more than double the number last year and four times as many as the year before that. They are coming mainly from the violent and poverty-stricken Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They cross the length of Mexico on a freight train so dangerous it’s known as La Bestia, the Beast, for the deaths and amputations it inflicts on its smuggled rooftop riders. Or they turn to a growing industry of mom-and-pop charter buses—usually in the hands of smugglers, some controlled by drug cartels—who charge families thousands of dollars per child. Some children have been robbed, assaulted or even raped by the time they reach the desert borderlands between Mexico and the U.S.

“We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border—hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable,” U.S. Customs and Border commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told a U.S. Senate committee on July 9. The U.S. government has shifted into crisis mode: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is scrambling to get the kids out of detention facilities and into shelters to receive medical exams, vaccinations and counselling; the military has provided shelters at bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma. But they are having trouble keeping up, with cases expected to surge to 90,000 this year.

“We have made progress. That progress is oftentimes disrupted when we see sudden influxes of kids coming in faster than we can discharge them and we back up,” said Craig Fugate, the administrator of FEMA, an agency more accustomed to dealing with hurricanes than a tsunami of desperate kids.

The result is what U.S. President Barack Obama is calling a “humanitarian crisis.” But critics say it’s a crisis of his own making—that by softening immigration policies for children, he has sent a signal to parents to send their offspring on this perilous, probably fruitless journey.

The spectacle of children sleeping on crowded floors of detention centres under Red Cross blankets and border agents changing diapers has sparked international concerns and political outrage.

Officials with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have asked the U.S. to give asylum to the children—an option normally reserved for victims of political, religious, or ethnic persecution.

But Obama wants them to go home. This month, the President asked Congress to authorize new spending of US$3.7 billion to help temporarily care for the children and process their cases more swiftly through immigration courts. But he also asked Congress for authorization to turn back the children as soon as they reach the U.S. “While we intend to do the right thing by these children, their parents need to know that this is an incredibly dangerous situation and it is unlikely that their children will be able to stay,” Obama told reporters on July 9.

The San Juan Diego shelter for migrants in Tultitlán, State of Mexico is under siege from neighbors complaining of crime, over-crowding and drug use. The sanctuary will probably be forced to close in the near future.
The San Juan Diego shelter for migrants in Tultitlán, State of Mexico is under siege from neighbors complaining of crime, over-crowding and drug use. The sanctuary will probably be forced to close in the near future. (Keith Dannemiller/International Organization for Migration)

Under current law, only child migrants from the “contiguous” countries of Mexico and Canada can be immediately turned back at the border. Kids from outside countries enjoy protection under anti-human trafficking law that requires the U.S. government to care for them and place them with relatives, sponsors or in shelters until their cases can be examined by immigration courts. But the legal system is bogged down with 375,000 pending cases, a record high. The process can take months or even years and only about half of the children who are summoned actually show up for their immigration hearings, according to the Justice Department. So smugglers, known as coyotes, tell parents that once their child is in the U.S., the odds are good they can stay.

“The coyotes are saying, ‘Now is a good time to go,’ ” says Rick Jones, deputy regional director for Catholic Relief Services in San Salvador. “People are listening now because of the levels of violence. If you’re desperate, you’re going to listen to that. It’s music to your ears.”

It’s an attractive message for many undocumented migrants in the U.S. who have worked minimum wage jobs and lived on the margins of society, instead of watching their kids grow up back home. “Their biggest dream is to see their children again,” says Carlos Cardona, a parish priest in the rugged Olancho region of Honduras, who works periodically with Honduran migrants in South Carolina.

“The perception is that if a child gets to the border, they’ll let them in,” says José Ángel Ramírez, 27, a construction worker in San Salvador whose own journey to the U.S. was cut short when he was deported from Mexico with his 17-year-old brother, Ernesto. “This has many people taking advantage of the opportunity to send their children,” he says, speaking at a deportee centre in San Salvador.

But the risks are enormous. And some critics in Congress say the Obama administration bears responsibility. “We are incentivizing parents to put their kids at great risk because they know that if they reach the Promised Land, they are home free,” said Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, at a Senate hearing last week.

The policy of putting unaccompanied immigrant children in foster care dates back to a 2008 law aimed at preventing human trafficking and sexual abuse, which was signed by president George W. Bush. But critics also point to several policy changes made by the Obama administration as having further encouraged people to send kids across the border. In June 2011, the director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) issued a memo directing agents to focus on deporting criminals, while reserving more favourable treatment for certain groups, including children. A year later, in August 2012, then-secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano issued a directive known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which prevented deportation and even allowed work permits for young people who had come to the U.S. as children and had lived there for at least five years. And Obama has supported legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would give permanent-resident status to some undocumented immigrants brought into the country years before. (He issued the DACA order after Republicans in Congress blocked the bill.)

While DACA and the DREAM Act don’t apply to new arrivals, all that translates into the impression that even children who arrive today are eligible for special treatment in the U.S., critics say. “Our policies [are] sending this message that they can stay is also inhumane in the sense that these children are being put on this deadly journey,” Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, said last week.

Vice President Joe Biden has travelled to Central America to tell leaders to discourage parents from sending children. The U.S. is pressing the same message in publicity campaigns on Central American radio, television, billboards and bus stops. And Obama’s spending request includes some funds to help improve conditions in Central America.

But critics say it’s not nearly enough.

Johnson, the Wisconsin senator, proposed sending kids back to their countries in highly publicized planeloads to send parents a clear message that the journey is not worth the risk. “I can’t think of a more humane thing to do, even though it maybe sounds a little cruel,” he said. There are also fears in Congress that the administration could be letting in teenagers with ties to gangs. “A juvenile can be just as dangerous as an adult and we have to be very, very careful about who we are letting into this country undocumented,” said Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Rafts made of large truck tire inner tubes and wooden planks navigate the waters of the Rio Suchiate between Tecún Umán, Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico, a favorite crossing point for irregular entry into Mexico by many Central and South American migrants on their way to the United States.
Rafts made of large truck tire inner tubes and wooden planks navigate the waters of the Rio Suchiate between Tecún Umán, Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico, a favorite crossing point for irregular entry into Mexico by many Central and South American migrants on their way to the United States. (Keith Dannemiller/International Organization for Migration))

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has criticized the administration’s response as inadequate, called for a mobilization of the National Guard and expressed surprise that Obama himself did not visit the border while in Texas to attend political fundraisers. “I think about the criticism that George W. Bush got when he didn’t go to New Orleans at Katrina,” Perry told Fox News after meeting with Obama in Dallas. “This is no different.”

An irony of the current crisis is that it comes after a decade in which the U.S. has spent nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars on reinforcing the border, doubled the size of its border patrol, built 1,000 km of fence, and deployed cameras, sensors and even dispatched drones to patrol its frontiers. Yet the kids—as well as a rising tide of families with young children—are not slipping through the increasingly militarized border, but rather seeking out border patrols and voluntarily turning themselves in, hoping for mercy.

“The issue is not that people are evading our enforcement officials. The issue is that we’re apprehending them in large numbers,” Obama told reporters.

In Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world, the schools are literally emptying out. Parents who want to enter the U.S. are also increasingly bringing their kids along. “They’re using their children as a shield,” says Héctor Urbina, an elementary school principal in Olancho, Honduras, who began cancelling classes in 2013 as students started withdrawing from school in startling numbers. He reports only 143 students are now registered, down from approximately 200 last year. “The worst thing is the way these children suffer on these trips,” he says.

Preyed upon by gangs, drug cartels and corrupt police, migrants crossing Mexico risk kidnapping for ransoms as low as $3,000—paid by relatives in the U.S. Rape is so prevalent that women and teenage girls pack emergency contraceptives for the trip or receive injections before leaving. A 2011 study by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health in Tapachula, on the Guatemala border, showed that almost one-third of migrant women swapped sex for services, such as trips from bus drivers and truckers. “They don’t consider that sexual violence,” says Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City. Their attitude is, “This is part of the process,” she adds.

But the risks of Mexico still appear minor compared to the everyday reality of poverty and violence in Central America. The homicide rate tops 90 per 100,000 residents in Honduras, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and hovers around 40 per 100,000 residents in Guatemala and El Salvador—double the Mexican rate. Gangs, which originated among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, have been a growing menace since arriving in the country 20 years ago. Joining is easy, experts say. Leaving is impossible. “There are two ways out of a gang: you go to prison or you go to a cemetery,” says Alex Ayala, director of a vocational program for at-risk youth in San Salvador.

Jonathan Sandoval, 17, one of Ayala’s metalworking students, became one of the estimated 130,000 internally displaced residents—in a country of only 6.3 million—after gangsters demanded extortion payments from his father, a taxi driver. “He couldn’t pay so we had to leave,” Sandoval says.

First-year university student Kevin Briceño, 18, finished his final four months of high school hiding at home due to threats. “They said, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ ” he says.

The UN Refugee Agency has also reported a 712 per cent increase in asylum applications to neighbouring Mexico, Panama, Belize, Costa Rica and even poverty-stricken Nicaragua.

Pressed by the U.S. to do more to interdict migrants, Mexico this month announced a new “southern border strategy.” Deportees report that Mexico is increasingly patrolling bus stations and setting up immigration checkpoints.

Some of that interdiction is working. Jimmy Sánchez, the 13-year-old from El Salvador, was detained by Mexican officials at a checkpoint in Chiapas state—far from the U.S. border. He was bused back to a deportee centre in San Salvador where he lunched on pupusas and watched World Cup matches while waiting to be processed, fingerprinted and sent home aboard a beat-up Blue Bird bus.

He was reluctant to speak about the details of his journey and uncertain of his future beyond returning to his neighbourhood, “where they ask for la famosa renta”—the rent that residents must pay to gangs in order to live in their own homes.

But the Ramírez brothers, brought to the same deportee centre, appeared anxious to get on the road again: José Ángel, the elder sibling, had borrowed $3,200 from U.S. relatives to pay for the trip—money he had to repay and had little prospect of earning at home.