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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 in 2014 of young migrants has created a humanitarian crisis and sparked debate about how the U.S. should handle the situation. This conversation continues today as the numbers are again on the rise.

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.? For unaccompanied minors from Central American countries, 2014 was the biggest year. Overall, 68,541 minors entered through the southwestern United States border. This amount was almost double the amount in 2013. In 2015, the numbers dropped to 39,970, and rose again in 2016 with 59,692 unaccompanied minors arriving.

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 2013 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees indicated that 63% of the immigrants from El Salvador, 43% 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, with statistics standing at 63% for El Salvador, 24% for Honduras, and 17% for Mexico. "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, while many girls from El Salvador reported fear of both home and gang-related sexual abuse.

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, as of 2014, the homicide rate is 74.6 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world. Although still shockingly high, the 2014 rate is lower than the peak rate of 2011: 93.2. In contrast, the U.S. rate is 4 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. When the laws regarding smuggling became stricter, due to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the coyotes raised their prices to match the risk. Border police have reported that on a good day the coyote rings can transport more than 500 children illegally into the United States, meaning these rings take in an enormous amount of money. Some estimate they earn over $5 billion per year. 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. 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 are 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 unless the judge they appear in front of grants them immigration relief. The immigration relief options are a T-visa, for victims of trafficking, a U-visa, for victims of certain crimes, the granting of asylum, or Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which can lead to permanent residence in the United States.

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. The Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps children receive vaccinations that might not have been available in their home countries.

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.

What is next? In July 2014, 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.

But Congress declined to increase the budget, forcing the United States to respond to the crisis by only making administrative changes with the existing budget. Groundwork was laid with institutional reforms; the Department of Homeland Security and the White House worked together to centralize the process of what happens when an unaccompanied minor is apprehended. The goal was to make a single, cohesive whole-government response that was repeated for each child. The DHS also worked to increase border security within its allotted budget. They reassigned hundreds of border patrol officers to the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the children are entering the U.S.

Congress and the Obama administration continued to go back and forth on budgets throughout 2014. Congressional Democrats blocked the "fast-track removal" process for minor immigrants entering the United States, which would have increased the speed at which the children were deported. Additionally, Congress failed to support Obama’s supplemental funding request. The request was to increase the amount of immigration judges and to provide additional legal services to the minors. From 2005 to 2014, 90% of the unaccompanied immigrants who appeared in court without legal representation were deported; except in 2013, when 72% were deported. In 2014, the percentage deported with legal representation was 22%. Legal representation greatly affects the future of these minors.

In November 2014, a new program was started for unaccompanied minors entering the U.S., the "Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program." The minors can apply for U.S. refugee status within their home countries, the U.S. accepts about 4,000 each year. However, it is limited to those with at least one lawful parent already in United States. This program was created so minors wouldn’t make the perilous journey unnecessarily, ending up back in their home countries a year later.

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
  • FY 2014: 68,541
  • FY 2015: 39,970
  • FY 2016: 59,692

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 FY 2015 FY 2016
El Salvador 1,394 3,314 5,990 16,404 9,389 17,512
Guatemala 1,565 3,835 8,068 17,057 13,589 18,913
Honduras 974 2,997 6,747 18,244 5,409 10,468
Mexico 11,768 13,974 17,240 15,634 11,012 11,926


—Beth Rowen and Katherine Schauer
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