Tens of thousands of children from Central American countries are crossing the United States-Mexico border. They are being apprehended and processed into America’s immigration system. And, according to President Barack Obama, the answer to this crisis is to send a message to children and their parents that they should not be sending their kids to America and ship them back home.
As Obama has announced, he is seeking greater authority from Congress to bypass anti-trafficking laws passed under President George W. Bush in order to speed up the process of deporting over 50,000 children back to countries in Central America, like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Obama declared in remarks delivered in front of the White House on July 1:
The journey is unbelievably dangerous for these kids. The children who are fortunate enough to survive it will be taken care of while they go through the legal process, but in most cases that process will lead to them being sent back home. I’ve sent a clear message to parents in these countries not to put their kids through this. I recently sent Vice President Biden to meet with Central American leaders and find ways to address the root causes of this crisis. Secretary Kerry will also be meeting with those leaders again tomorrow. With our international partners, we’re taking new steps to go after the dangerous smugglers who are putting thousands of children’s lives at risk.
Today, I sent a letter to congressional leaders asking that they work with me to address the urgent humanitarian challenge on the border, and support the immigration and Border Patrol agents who already apprehend and deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants every year. And understand, by the way, for the most part, this is not a situation where these children are slipping through. They’re being apprehended. But the problem is, is that our system is so broken, so unclear that folks don’t know what the rules are.
As one might be able to tell, the culture of empire was on full display. They don’t know what the “rules” are. “Dangerous smugglers”—the “coyotes” parents are paying to help get their children safely to America—are putting children’s lives at risk. Obama resents that parents haven’t listened to his “clear message” to not put “their kids through this,” like they’re supposed to obey him first and foremost and not desire a better life for their children where they can live safely.
One of the most significant issues is that these children should not simply be regarded as immigrants. In many cases, it would be more appropriate to treat them as refugees or asylum-seekers because children—and in some cases entire families—are fleeing their homes.
When the Obama administration first announced that it would begin detaining and deporting more immigrant families, Michelle Brané, the director of Migrant Rights and Justice Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, reacted, “We are gravely concerned by the Administration’s announcement that it will expand the use of family detention and deny families full access to protection under US and international law. While the administration is understandably under pressure to create order out of this humanitarian crisis, locking babies in prison cells and deporting women and young children to dangerous situations are not the answers.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Washington, DC, conducted a major study, “Children on the Run” [PDF], that examined this crisis. There has been increased numbers of children and adults seeking asylum since 2009. Eighty-five percent of new applications for asylum in 2012 came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Altogether, asylum requests from Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize increased 435%.
Similar to the current crisis, there was a “surge” registered by the US government beginning in October 2011. In 2011, 4,059 unaccompanied and separated children were apprehended by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). By 2013, 21,537 children were apprehended by CBP.
UNHCR interviewed children who had fled and found that they provided information indicating they “may well be in need of international protection.” Forty-eight percent of the displaced children who were interviewed “shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors.”
“Twenty-one percent of the children confided that they had survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers,” according to UNHCR’s study. “A third category of harm giving rise to potential international protection needs arose only among the children from Mexico: recruitment into and exploitation by the criminal industry of human smuggling – that is, facilitating others in crossing into the United States unlawfully. Thirty-eight percent of the children from Mexico fell into this category. Eleven percent of the children reported having suffered or being in fear of both
violence in society and abuse in the home.”
Out of 104 children from El Salvador, “Sixty-six percent of the children cited violence by organized armed criminal actors as a primary motivator for leaving, and 21% percent discussed abuse in the home.”
Maritza, a fifteen year-old from El Salvador, told UNHCR, “I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. They told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7. They said if I was still there on April 8, they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen. . . . My mother’s plan was always for the four of us – her, my two sisters and me – to be together. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to come. I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me.”
The rate of children from Guatemala the UNHCR indicated raised “international protection concerns” because of deprivation, violence and abuse was lower than in El Salvador. Twenty percent of 100 children interviewed discussed violence in society.
“Gangs in a nearby neighborhood wanted to kill me and some other people,” David, a sixteen year-old from Guatemala told UNHCR. “They wanted me to give them money, but what money was I supposed to give them? I didn’t have any. They asked me a bunch of questions, like who was my father, and who was my family.
“I told them my father was dead. They told me to say goodbye because I was going to join my father. They asked me if I knew who they were, if I could identify them. I said no, because I knew if I said yes they would kill me. They held my cousin and me for three hours, tied up. My cousin was able to untie the rope and he helped me untie mine. We heard gun shots and we ran. They kept looking for us, but we escaped.”
Forty-four percent of 98 children interviewed from Honduras were displaced children, who were “threatened with or were victims of violence by organized armed criminal actors.”
There are escalating threats from “drug trafficking, polarized political systems, weak law enforcement and social hardships—such as poverty and unemployment” driving displacement of children as well.
Mauricio, a seventeen year-old from Honduras, said, “If they really do want to know how hard life is down there, they should go see it. There are kids who don’t make it past five [years old] because they die of hunger. Their parents can’t work because there are no jobs. Just give us a chance. Let us better ourselves so we can be something better than what we are today.”
In the midst of this crisis, the rights of children should be the first and foremost priority. The UNHCR study pointed out the Convention on the Rights of the Child “gives particular attention to the special protection needs of children deprived of their family environment and of children who are refugees or are seeking asylum.” The United States could probably grant many of these children Special Immigrant Juveniles visas.
But the Obama administration does not have to worry about violating this treaty. The US and Somalia are two of the only countries in the world that have not ratified this convention. That, in some ways, frees the administration to deny children internationally recognized protections if it would prefer to ship planeloads of children back to each of these Central American countries.
Furthermore, the immigration system has become a deportation and mass incarceration system. Obama has deported an average of 395,689 immigrants each year, a higher rate of deportation than Bush and nearly four times the rate of deportation under President Bill Clinton.
Only 1.82% of asylum applicants—181 people from El Salvador—were granted asylum in 2013, according to the US Justice Department. The number of asylum-seekers from Guatemala and Honduras, who had their asylum applications granted was less than 155.
Private prisons are making money off of warehousing immigrants. CBP, according to the Migration Institute, now “refers more cases for federal criminal prosecution than the FBI. Nationwide, more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions initiated in fiscal year 2013 were for illegal entry or reentry into the United States.”
Patricia Flynn of the ACLU wrote a rather disturbing blog post in which she detailed how she witnessed 50 immigrants being brought into a courtroom shackled and chained to each other. They each pled guilty and then were sent off to a private prison. “It’s the kind of assembly-line justice that might be expected in the gulag prison system of Egypt’s military-backed government,” she declared. [For more, see ACLU's report, "Warehoused and Forgotten."]
The answer to an escalating refugee crisis under Obama has been to advance the militarization of the border and take the criminalization of immigration to the next level. Rather than give appropriate attention to protecting the human rights of children or families, who are fleeing violence and extreme poverty in their countries, this has been Obama’s choice.