As Congress dithers over immigration reform, the children of Central America aren’t waiting. The past few years have seen a steady rise in the number of teenagers and younger boys and girls crossing the Southwest border unaccompanied by their parents or adult relatives. Many are fleeing drug and gang-related violence in nations like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But many also have family in the United States, and sometimes walk across the long land bridges with phone numbers in hand. In Washington-speak, these are Unaccompanied Alien Children or UACs. And their numbers could approach 66,000 this year — more than four times the level of just two years ago.
Elizabeth Kennedy, a doctoral candidate at San Diego State University, has studied the crisis from both sides of the U.S. border, including a stint now as a Fulbright fellow in El Salvador. All the Salvadoran children must cross Mexico at some point to get to the U.S. — and many are intercepted and turned back by Mexican authorities. Kennedy has collected over 400 interviews by going to the migrant return center and talking with waiting family members and their children once they arrive.
“Most of the children I meet at the bus return center will try again, and some will reach the United States,” she said. “I’m in contact with 20 who have done so since I got here in October. I’m sure others have arrived and have elected not to stay in contact with me.”
“Over 90 percent of child migrants here have a family member in the U.S,” Kennedy said. “Despite these numbers, less than a third mention family reunification as a reason for emigrating. More often than not, their neighborhood has become so dangerous or they have been so seriously threatened, that to stay is to wait for their own death or great harm to their family. Their neighborhoods are full of gangs. Their schools are full of gangs. They do not want to join for moral and political reasons and thus see no future.”
“In only one of 400-plus interviews did a child migrant ask about the DREAM Act and immigration reform. … Fifteen had heard that the U.S. system treated children differently than adults and wanted to know how. In all 15 cases, the child had received a threat to join the gang or be killed, and some had then been beat or raped when they refused to join.”
“Thus, there is only limited knowledge of the way the U.S. system works for children. U.S. legislation is not driving this emigration. A humanitarian crisis is. We need to accept that when large amounts of people leave a country, this is indicative of untenable problems in that country. … Until the root causes are addressed, it’s going to continue.”
“The reality is that violence — homicide, rape, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance — is at near an all-time high,” Kennedy said of her time in El Salvador. “And it has a disproportionate impact on young people.” (Read the complete article here; Elizabeth was also quoted on the same subject in The New York Times on June 4, 2014.)