We need solutions for children fleeing violence in Central America, the current system is failing

November 8, 2019

President John Adams once observed that “facts are stubborn things.” Those words came to mind last week when United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that in FY 2018 it detained a record number of unaccompanied children crossing the nation’s southwest border. These numbers reinforce the fact that the administration’s attempts to deter immigrant kids from seeking safety in the United States are not only cruel and cause harm to children, but have failed.

Since 2011, the number of unaccompanied Central American children arriving in the United States has risen dramatically, increasing by 272 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to CBP. And now, new figures released by CBP on Oct. 29 reveal that during the last fiscal year alone the United States detained 76,020 children traveling without their parents. That’s double FY 2018’s total and is the highest number of children to cross into the U.S. alone to date. These numbers reflect what the many thousands of children Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has worked with have told us—that persistent violence from gangs and narco-traffickers in Central America that pushes children out of their countries remains unaddressed. The administration’s decision to focus on policies that close borders instead of tackling issues that stop the violence and circumstances driving children to journey north alone is a serious miscalculation.

Children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and some states in Mexico are fleeing circumstances that are far worse than many in the United States realize. Honduras and El Salvador have among the highest murder rates in the world, and record-setting violence continues to flourish in Mexico. More women and girls are murdered in Central America, per capita, than most places in the world. Additionally, gangs frequently target the boys and girls left orphaned as a result of violence. These children face an unthinkable choice between becoming a gang member or risking death for themselves and family members. For many, the only way out is to flee.

Their journey is often perilous. KIND staff met three unaccompanied teenage girls trying to make their way to the United States. They were staying at a makeshift shelter in a remote location near Tijuana that housed both adults and unaccompanied children together. The shelter was little more than a compound of dilapidated and unfinished buildings. One of the girls, who was just 15-year-old, was over four months pregnant and had been rushed to the hospital the night before because of dizziness and symptoms of dehydration. At the shelter, the other two girls we interviewed were clearly exposed to narcotics that they said had been given to them to “make them feel better.” The girls were terrified that they were in imminent danger at the shelter and apprehensive about their next steps to seek safety. We later learned that during their journey to cross into the United States, one of the girls was kidnapped by traffickers and disappeared.

This story highlights that the administration’s attempts to stem immigration through a series of conflicting and confusing policies, including pressuring Mexico to stop migration, the Migrant Protection Protocols and metering at ports of entry, are resulting in increased harm and vulnerability to exploitation for these children. Important laws designed to reduce human trafficking and increase protections for children, bipartisan goals, should be implemented in a way that protects children. These laws, like the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, are vital safeguards that give children a meaningful opportunity to present the factual and legal issues necessary to present a claim for U.S. protection. The goals of these laws designed to reduce trafficking and protect children must continue to be embraced because they provide core protections for the most vulnerable among us, unaccompanied kids.

The historic number of children coming alone to the United States this year is a resounding call to address the violence and lack of protection that are driving children out of their countries in the first place. Fortunately, we have some ways forward. We can urge Congress to support legislation that does this, including the Central America Reform and Enforcement (CARE) Act (S. 1445), which would allow children to apply for protection in their home countries and expand refugee processing in the region.

The facts are clear. Unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States are desperately seeking a lifeline. Efforts to close our borders and deter these children from seeking safety in the United States are failing. CBP’s own numbers prove this. Providing meaningful solutions so these children can stay safely in their home countries, while still ensuring access to U.S. protection is the only real answer. We can help these children, and we have a responsibility to do so.

Jennifer Podkul is Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).