The “surge” of unaccompanied minors isn’t over

The so-called "surge" of unaccompanied children from Central America has not ended. Not only has the U.S. policy response been insufficient, the language describing the phenomenon has been offensive and unhelpful.


It has been widely described as a “surge”—the sudden rise in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the United States. While the numbers have decreased this year in comparison to previous years, even the reduced flow remains a humanitarian crisis that neither the U.S. nor the sending country governments have fully addressed.

From October 2013 to September 2014 (the last full fiscal year for which we have data), 68,541 unaccompanied minors tried to enter the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border.  In comparison, only 4,059 minors were apprehended in 2011 according to the UNHCR. The majority of children arriving in 2014 were fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala caused by drug cartels, gangs, the world’s highest murder rates, and pervasive, systemic poverty (often called “structural violence”).

According to the Pew Research Center, as a result of Mexico’s recent crackdown on its southern border (and the deportation of thousands of minors back to Central America), there was a significant decline in the number of unaccompanied minors showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border. From November 2014 to March 2015,  12,509 minors were apprehended, compared to 21,403 for the same period in the previous year.

Yet, what do these numbers really mean? Does this mean the surge and the accompanying humanitarian crisis are over? Far from it.

To begin with, even these lower numbers represent a tragic, steady flow of unaccompanied minors and a significant increase from only a few years ago.

Furthermore, thousands of children await immigration proceedings and their lives remain in a precarious state of limbo. Although children arriving from Mexico are quickly returned, due to a 2008 anti-trafficking law, those arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador cannot be immediately deported. They are either placed with sponsors or housed in temporary emergency shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. As they wait, many of these children remain isolated and largely invisible to society at large (reportedly, there are approximately 80 such shelters currently operating).

Finally, while the efforts of the Mexican government to tighten its southern border may result in fewer children reaching the U.S. border, it does not change the fundamental root of the problem which is the sustained and persistent violence and poverty that fundamentally shapes the daily lives of migrant children in their home nations. Some analysts, such as the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have suggested that when the conditions are as dire as they are in Guatemala or Honduras, those desperate to leave will always find other routes to the United States.

So, how are we to interpret and respond to this year’s numbers? Ultimately how we view these children and how we seek to respond hinge on perception—how we view the world and the language we use to frame what we see. Are these children undocumented migrants or refugees? Are they illegal aliens or asylum seekers? Are they even children, or are they unaccompanied minors? This may seem like semantics, but there are high stakes associated with these legal categories, with a tremendous impact on the protections these children may be afforded. How and whether we include these children in the national discussion and imagination will also affect advocacy efforts surrounding immigration reform.

Even the word surge itself is loaded with connotations. At its most innocuous it draws on common idioms used in describing migration – words like “wave” that characterize human beings as a collective mass, a force without the individual agency accorded to citizens. At its worst it calls up the military images. (Remember President George W. Bush’s surge to re-take and pacify parts of Iraq?)

Perhaps most problematic is the use of the word surge to describe this crisis in that it suggests that this is a new problem rather than one that existed before these children reached the border. Even if the number of children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border decreases, this does not mean the root causes have abated. Increasingly, we live in an interconnected world where the causes of violence, particularly drug trafficking and consumption, transcend borders. As participants in and drivers of this transnational consumer economy, we all must participate in resolving the problem.  The important step the Obama administration took last June with Vice President Joe Biden attending the regional summit in Guatemala must continue.

But that is not enough. Congress needs to approve more funding for the treatment of the children who have made it across the border (as of December, they approved only $1.2 billion of the $3.7 billion requested by Obama). Many of these children are now awaiting immigration proceedings in conditions of isolation, often without adequate legal representation. Though this issue has become bundled into broader immigration debates, polarized by political differences in Congress, it is imperative that this be recognized and treated as the humanitarian crisis it is: these are children who qualify for seeking asylum as refugees.

If we only focus on the number of children crossing the border we lose sight of the fundamental problem that must be acknowledged and addressed, namely the pervasive violence that is at the root of this crisis.

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