The number of unaccompanied children and asylum-seekers crossing the US-Mexico border in search of protection has increased in recent weeks. The former president, his acolytes, and both extremist and mainstream media have characterized this situation as a “border crisis,” a self-inflicted wound by the Biden administration, and even a failure of US asylum policy. It is none of these things. Rather, it is a response to compounding pressures, most prominently the previous administration’s evisceration of US asylum and anti-trafficking policies and procedures, and the failure to address the conditions that are displacing residents of the Northern Triangle states of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), as well as Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, and other countries. In Central America, these conditions include:
- Two hurricanes – Eta and Iota – that have left 8 million persons (1.8 million of them children) in need of humanitarian assistance, and have destroyed countless livelihoods and tens of thousands of homes in Guatemala and Honduras.
- Negative economic growth in all three Northern Triangle countries.
- The economic and public health devastation wrought by COVID-19.
- The ravages of climate changes.
- Gang control in many communities, breakdowns in the rule of law, and rampant violence. The homicide rates in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala remain among the highest in the world.
This is not the first time large numbers of unaccompanied children have sought to enter the United States. In the late summer of 2016, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) and the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN) embarked on a fact-finding trip to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Southern Mexico to visit migrant shelters and detention facilities, which mostly held deportees from Mexico. More than 160,000 unaccompanied children and a similar number of migrants traveling in family units had arrived at the US-Mexico border in the 18-month period prior to our trip. In meetings with public officials, community groups, and migrants, we heard repeatedly of the threats to children and adolescents living in communities controlled by gangs. Boys faced conscription, girls sexual enslavement, and family breadwinners extortion. The gangs met even perceived resistance with violence. Children without parents at home were particularly vulnerable. Many children negotiated a daily gauntlet in their trip to and from school, passing through neighborhoods controlled by competing gangs that demanded their fidelity. Gangs had also taken over many public recreational spaces, leaving little safe space for these children. Not surprisingly, some families sought to protect their children by moving, and others by placing their children with family members in other communities. Many adolescents fled their countries of birth, often in an attempt to join their parents in the United States.Mexico, Migration, United States