Arriving without their parents: Child refugees being warehoused on the U.S. border


Thousands of unaccompanied child refugees from Central America, making their way through Mexico and into the U.S., are ending up in locked, fenced warehouses in Texas and Arizona.

To make matters worse the plight of these children ,who are sleeping on plastic boards and are often hungry and ill-clothed, is being cynically used by the right wing to further stymie any hope of immigration reform.

The anti-immigrant right is accusing the children, who by any reasonable standard are refugees from -horrific conditions in their home countries, of being nothing more than immigrants trying to "game" the system. The right wingers are saying the children want to take advantage of President Obama's supposed "leniency" toward young immigrants and they're saying no relief whatsoever should be given to any category of undocumented immigrants, including children.

The government is reporting a sharp increase in undocumented immigration on the U.S.-Mexican border, with a particularly large number of unaccompanied minor children crossing over.  Most of the children are not from Mexico originally but from the poorer countries of Central America:  Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Often, they are allowing themselves to be picked up by U.S. authorities. In spite of what the anti-immigrant right says, these children are not given a "free pass" to stay and are subject to deportation.

Meanwhile,  the law requires that within 72 hours of being apprehended by the Border Patrol, the children have to be turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement to be placed either with their parents (if the latter live in the United States), or in a care facility until their immigration case is dealt with.  But all facilities are now overwhelmed, and the federal government, in trying to open new ones, is running into "NIMBY" ("Not in my Back Yard") opposition locally.

According to reports, the Border Patrol apprehended 162,000 immigrants from Mexico and Central America who tried to cross into South Texas without papers in the last 8 months.  Forty seven thousand of these were unaccompanied minor children, some as young as four.  The corresponding figure for the whole of 2009 was 3,304 children.

The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBO) suggested that because President Obama, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Apprehensions (DACA) program, suspended the deportation of young people who would be eligible for legalization under the DREAM Act, the United States is now being invaded by children hoping to "get on the gravy train." However, this surge began before the announcement of DACA in June of 2012.

People who know Central America and who have interviewed the immigrant children assert that they should be seen as refugees rather than migrants, and that the crisis is a humanitarian and not an immigration one.  The United Nations Commission on Human Rights representatives in the area say that 58 percent of the children certainly would qualify for relief under international law governing refugees.

The driving factors include, for some, a desire to rejoin parents who live in the United States.  But more important is a sharp increase in violence and poverty in the Central American area.

Honduras and Guatemala have right wing governments who have cut back on basic services and under whom unemployment and poverty have increased.  Honduras now has the world's highest murder rate.

El Salvador just moved to the left with the election of Salvador Sanchez Ceren as president. However, it has been plagued for a long time by violent gangs or "maras" whose ultimate origin is in the United States:  During the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s, many people fled the violence and ended up in the poor barrios of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.  Some youths got sucked into gang activities which led to their being deported back to El Salvador.  This jump-started the development of gangs there, which the Salvadoran government has had trouble controlling.  

Mexican-based drug cartels have battled over turf with gangs in Central America or created links with them, creating a hyper violent situation in which the safety of ordinary working class or farming families has suffered greatly.  There is an increase in kidnapping, extortion and violent robberies.  This has contributed  to an increase in the number of people of all ages who ride on top of "la Bestia," not one but actually several freight trains which go from Mexico's Southern border with Guatemala to its Northern border with the United States.

On the train they are no means safe; criminal gangs now frequently board to demand money .  When they don't receive it they often shoot people or throw them off the train, sometimes to their deaths.   Women and girls are raped as a matter of routine.

Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica also report increases in the number of Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran unaccompanied minors who are crossing their borders.  Mexico and Costa Rica are somewhat richer than the Central American countries.  Nicaragua was for a long time one of the poorest countries in the region but has been doing better since hitching up with the "Bolivarian" group of left led countries led by Venezuela, through which it receives substantial aid.

In response to the crisis, Congress is working on providing more funds and President Obama has mobilized FEMA resources. 

At writing, Vice President Joe Biden was headed for Central America to meet with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to "coordinate responses" and to explain to local people why it is dangerous for children to make the trek North, where they can be trafficked and otherwise preyed on.

What is needed is for U.S. politicians to ponder why it is so dangerous for them to stay. 

Photo: Two young girls watch TV from a holding area where hundreds of immigrant children are being processed and held. Ross D. Franklin/AP

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  • How can I help??

    Posted by Tony velvick, 08/12/2014 3:37pm (1 year ago)

  • I don't care about the partisan politics. I don't care about the coordinated responses. These are children who's parents have sent them hopefully to a safer place, much like eastern europe did so long ago; parents who will likely never see their precious children again. I want to help care for those children. How can I help?

    Posted by Betty Holden, 07/30/2014 3:09am (1 year ago)

  • I for one would like to offer a helping hand to anyone in need if they deserve or need it, but when is enough too much? I agree they need help, but we can barely take care of our own citizens here in the states.

    We have a high rate of homelessness and hunger in our own back yard. How can we take in thousands of others who will probably put more of a financial burden and strain on our nation.

    We already have too many kids on our streets and in the foster care system as it is. I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think it's fair that we offer a whole bunch of relief to undocumented individuals, when we have millions of documented citizens suffering just as bad if not more.

    The only difference is that they are citizens and most of them middle class working poor. Do we have to save the entire world all the time because of the incompetence of their government?

    The US is always trying to paperclip and band-aid some other countries problems and/or in someone else's back yard, business which is why there are so many nations pissed off at us.

    Posted by I Don't Know, 07/09/2014 10:10am (1 year ago)

  • As to what we can do we can insist that:

    *The government announcement of expedited deportation be retracted immediately, given the fact that the dangers the children faced in their home countries are so extreme that sending them back now would place them in immediate danger to their lives, as well as violating international law. They have to be treated as refugees. Yes, the trips they take are dangeorus, but think of what the danger must be in their home communities to undertake that risk!

    *To send money to the governments of Guatemala and Honduras (El Salvador is a different story) to beef up their police and military is a serious error which could worsen the situation on the ground, given the shocking violations of human rights regularly perpetrated by security forces in those countries, by governments supported by the United States.

    *Nor is it a good idea to pressure the Mexican government to crack down on the child migrants, given the bad human rights record of the Mexican authorities, especially toward migrants.

    *It is probably the case that many of the children have relatives living in the United States, even mothers and fathers, whom they were trying to reach by undertaking their journeys. In such cases, the emphasis should be on re-uniting the children with their families here. if such families do not have legal status in the United States, they should be given temporary protection similar to that given to the "Dreamers" in President Obama's DACA program, so that they don't have to fear that by surfacing to assert their claim to protect the children, they submit themselves and the children to the threat of deportation.

    *In the long run, we must fight for a complete change in the policies of the United States government toward the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean, and insist on new policies that allow the peoples of the region to advance instead of being strangled by U.S. corporate and geopolitical interests.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 07/01/2014 5:35pm (1 year ago)

  • These numbers are staggering. These children have the right to be treated humanely while they are in holding, which is the primary issue here while the overarching situation is dealt with.

    Posted by Alfredo Lozano, 06/30/2014 12:06pm (1 year ago)

  • From every definition I could find anywhere, these children fleeing violence and arriving in USA are REFUGEES not IMMIGRANTS. Calling them immigrants is a poor attempt to shirk responsibility by some. Other countries have been dealing with refugees in millions. Now it is turn of USA to practice what it has preached to the world for long.

    It seems that many of the hate remarks against these children in distress may be based in racism, if one checks the racial origin of the person, but it is even more insidious this time because it is directed at children, even infants.

    Ill treating children and child refugees is a crime against humanity.

    Please see my linked website for more on this issue

    Posted by Ashok, 06/29/2014 10:35pm (1 year ago)

  • Hmm... Given blankets, being fed a few free meals, and having a roof over their heads? Doesn't seem like they have it so rough in there to me. If they honestly don't like it, they are more than welcome leave and head back to their own country. I mean really. Did the parents who recklessly sent their own children to the U.S. UNACCOMPANIED through dangerous parts unknown seriously think that when their kids got to the USA, they were going to be put in Hilton Suites? We are barely able to even take care of our own citizens, let alone take in truckloads of people from other countries! Maybe the people in the Central American countries should improve their nations instead going "Take my kids! They're your problem now!"

    Posted by Zodait, 06/28/2014 3:46pm (1 year ago)

  • What can we do? How can we help to disassemble borders and embrace our humanity. It is not outside of us. It is a part of us. As long as we keep it (suffering) at arms distance we will not know peace.

    Posted by anna, 06/23/2014 11:05am (1 year ago)

  • My heart goes out to the people of Central America. They can not enjoy the benefits this country provides. They have no government housing, food stamps, unemplyment benefits, welfare, etc. If our country lost those things, we would be crossing the border into Canada by the thousands.

    Posted by Donna Garber, 06/20/2014 1:06pm (1 year ago)

  • Sir:
    What can be done quickly to bring these children into American Homes and raised in the Freedom they seek. How quickly can we get them out of these camps?

    Posted by Swede Talking, 06/20/2014 12:56am (1 year ago)

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