Migrant Minors: FAQS, Facts, and Statistics

Unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Central America create a humanitarian crisis


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Since 2012, thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge from abject poverty and increasing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico have flooded the U.S.-Mexican border. The surge of young migrants has created a humanitarian crisis and sparked debate about how the U.S. should handle the situation.

Many Republicans say President Barack Obama has not done enough to stop illegal immigration and is therefore responsible for the surge of unaccompanied minors. Some Democrats, on the other hand, believe that the children should be granted international protection and be allowed to remain in the U.S. In September 2014, President Obama approved a program to set up centers in the Central American countries where children can apply for refugee status, thereby giving them an alternative to undertaking the perilous journey.

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the crisis as well as facts and statistics.

How many children have arrived in the U.S.? More than 62,000 between January and July 2014. About 10,000 entered the U.S. in June alone. For the first half of 2014, there was a 92% increase in unaccompanied migrants over the same period in 2013. However, only about 3,000 arrived in the U.S. in August.

Why are so many children fleeing their countries? Many of the immigrant children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico are escaping extreme violence, often gang-related and fueled by the drug trade. A report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees indicated that 66% of the immigrants from El Salvador, 44% of Hondurans, and 32% of Mexicans cited violence in society (mostly gang-related violence) as the reason for leaving. Violence in the home was another strong motivator. "Salvadoran and Honduran children ... come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home," the report said. Guatemalan children cited deprivation (29%), violence in the home (23%), and violence in society (20%) as reasons for leaving their countries. Children in Honduras also cited poverty as reasons for leaving.

Why is there suddenly so much violence in these countries?The drug trade, organized crime, gangs, and political instability are largely blamed for the uptick in violence. Political instability has allowed gangs and organized crime to thrive in Central America. In addition, many gangs that operated out of Mexico have moved to Central America when they were squeezed out by larger, more powerful drug cartels. Seeking to increase their numbers, gangs actively recruit children to sell or move drugs, and beat or kill those who refuse to join. In Honduras, the homicide rate is 91.4 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world. In contrast, the U.S. rate is 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people.

Why would parents let their kids make such a dangerous journey? Parents are desperate for a better life for their children, and they send them off, often with coyotes, or human smugglers. The coyotes charge about $3,000-$4,000 per child, an exorbitant sum for families, many who live on $1-$2 per day. For families that can't afford the fee, children travel by foot or atop trains. Many parents are misinformed and assume their children will be allowed to stay with relatives in the U.S.

What happens to the kids once they arrive in the U.S.? Children who cross the border are put into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol. Under a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush, migrant children who are from countries other than Canada and Mexico, ie, non-contiguous countries, must be granted an immigration hearing and meet with an advocate. Because of the backlog, this process can take months or years. The law, which had bipartisan support, was intended to stop sex trafficking and protect immigrant minors from being quickly deported. Instead, it has left thousands of children languishing in "short-term hold rooms," essentially crammed jail cells until child-appropriate shelters are found. President Obama asked Congress to amend the law to make it easier to send the children back to their native country. Once such housing is available, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the department of Health and Human Services, assumes responsibility for the children. There are now about 80 shelters for immigrant minors, mostly in border states. The average stay in the shelter is 35 days, while authorities track down relatives of the children. About 85% of the children have been reunited with family members and live with them during the hearing process. Those that don't have family in the U.S. move to long-term shelters or foster homes. Most of the children will be deported.

How long does the legal process take once the children are in custody? According to TRAC Immigration, a non-partisan website operated out of Syracuse University, the average time it takes to complete an immigration case is 520 days. The wait is much longer in some cities. For example, it takes an average of 1,468 days to complete a case in San Francisco, and 1,028 days in Phoenix, Arizona. The process is much longer if a child files for asylum status. Immigration hearings are civil proceedings, so the children are not entitled to a public defender, leaving many without representation in court.

What do the children do while they are waiting a hearing? They are eligible to attend public schools and access healthcare.

Will any of the children be allowed to remain in the U.S.? There are two routes children can pursue to stay in the U.S.: refugee asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. According to the UN, a refugee is "someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group." Children who can prove they've been abused, abandoned, or neglected may qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. According to the UN, 58% of the children in custody may qualify for international protection: an estimated 72% from El Salvador, 38% from Guatemala, 57% from Honduras, and 64% from Mexico.

Facts and Stats

Number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. since fiscal year 2011 (U.S. Border Patrol figures)

  • FY 2011: 16,067
  • FY 2012: 24,481
  • FY 2013: 38,833

Number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. since fiscal year 2011 by country (U.S. Border Patrol figures)

Country FY 2011 FY 2012 FY 2013 FY 2014
El Salvador 1,394 3,314 5,990 13,301
Guatemala 1,565 3,835 8,068 14,086
Honduras 974 2,997 6,747 16,546
Mexico 11,768 13,974 17,240 12,614

  • In July, President Obama requested $3.7 billion from Congress to address the situation. The money would improve conditions at the holding facilities and shelters, beef up border enforcement, and allocate funds to hire more judges and open more immigration courts.
  • Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica are also seeing a marked increase in asylum requests.
  • —Beth Rowen
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