Kids Crossing Alone II: Why, and Why Now?
In my last blog post, I introduced the issue of migrant children–particularly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador–crossing into the United States alone. If you keep up with U.S. news on a fairly regular basis, you will have noticed that everyone from President Obama to U.S. lawmakers and international dignitaries are weighing in on the issue.
For many observers unfamiliar with immigration or Latin America, the plight of the unaccompanied minors and their families can seem confounding. Why are so many children crossing the border alone, and why now?
While many U.S. commentators have offered their own (and frequently ill-informed) opinions on the surge of migrant children in the U.S., no one knows the answer better than the “unaccompanied minors” themselves.
After interviewing 404 unaccompanied migrant minors in the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a ground-breaking report entitled “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection.” (You can download the full report, as well as other UNHCR resources, here.) The report details a number of “push factors” raised by the migrant children, and concluded that the reasons for the children’s fleeing their countries of origin were often much more complex than the U.S. media, politicians, and other commentators portray them to be. In other words, the reasons for each child’s immigration often included not only the desire to seek protection from harm (whether it be within or without the home), but also a yearning for greater economic opportunities and social mobility.
Despite the complexity of their rationales, unaccompanied migrant children overwhelmingly expressed fear of growing violence within their homes and societies. According to “Children on the Run,” out of the entire group of 404 interviewee children (whose countries of origin included Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), 58 percent expressed fears of returning to their home countries on the basis of violence. In particular, 48 percent of children recounted personal experiences with organized violence in their home countries (whether it be perpetrated by gangs, drug cartels, and/or the state), while 21 percent expressed fear regarding domestic abuse within their own household. Finally–and uniquely among Mexican children– 38 percent of interviewed Mexican children expressed a fear of exploitation/forced labor by human traffickers or smugglers.
Some excerpts from the interviews:
(WARNING: GRAPHIC/VIOLENT CONTENT)
Alfonso, El Salvador, Age 17 (p. 27):
The problem was that where I studied there were lots of M-18 gang members, and where I lived was under control of the other gang, the MS-13. The M-18 gang thought I belonged to the MS-13. They had killed the two police officers who protected our school. They waited for me outside the school. It was a Friday, the week before Easter, and I was headed home. The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one. After that, I couldn’t even leave my neighborhood. They prohibited me. I know someone whom the gangs threatened this way. He didn’t take their threats seriously. They killed him in the park. He was wearing his school uniform. If I hadn’t had these problems, I wouldn’t have come here.
Violence in the Home
Unnamed Female, Guatemala, no age given (p. 34):
I had problems with my grandmother. She always beat me from the time I was little. That’s why I went to live with my boyfriend – and because I was lonely and sad. But after we had been living together for about a month, my boyfriend also beat me. He beat me almost every day. I stayed with him for four months. I left because he tried to kill me by strangling me. I left that same day.
General Societal Violence
Kevin, Honduras, age 17 (p. 36):
My grandmother wanted me to leave. She told me: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you—or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’
Other Factors (including Economics)
Sarah, Mexico, age 16 (p. 47)
I don’t understand why there are so many criminals who want to be more powerful than the authorities in our countries. If the authorities are afraid of the criminals, then our country will never get ahead. We have to work hard and reduce the violence and the criminal organizations. Also, the lack of jobs causes problems. Many people can’t get a job no matter how hard they try. They need to work to support their families, and the families there are bigger than the families here. Also, many people can’t complete their education because of the social instability and school closing. Our countries are allowing themselves to be controlled by the gangs and by people who only think about themselves and not the well-being of their own country. I want the president of this country to help us because all we want is a better future.
As these examples hopefully demonstrate, the factors prompting so many Mexican and Central American minors to flee their home countries alone are vast and complex; however, most relate directly to personal fears of violence either within the home or in society. We must remember that many of the children who seek refuge in the United States have seen horrendous violence in their home countries; therefore, it is imperative that the US government treat them with great care and dignity.
In my next post of this series, I will examine the legal predicaments and possibilities facing unaccompanied minors in immigration court. Thank you for reading!