Go to Blog
Rights and Justice

Fleeing Life-threatening Violence, Children Risk Their Lives to Come to the United States

Why are so many children risking the perilous journey from their homes in Central America to the United States?

If you pause and consider what one child told me, “you stay you will die, if you leave, you might [die]… either way it’s better to try,” you begin to see why.

Beginning in October 2011, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied alien children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began migrating to the United States. From October 2011 to April 2012, U.S. immigration agents apprehended almost twice as many children as in previous years. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency responsible for the care and custody of these children, has seen the number of unaccompanied children in its custody double from an average of about 7000 a year, to over 14,000 in fiscal year 2012.

In June 2012, I was part of a fact-finding trip that traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to look into the reasons for the sharp increase in the number of children migrating alone and the U.S. government’s response. The investigation was conducted by the organization I work for, the Women's Refugee Commission, with the support and participation of the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. We interviewed more than 150 detained boys and girls, most of them 15 to 17 years old, and met with government agencies responsible for responding to the influx.

The majority of the children we interviewed said that they had fled north—by foot, by bus or on top of trains—because of the dramatic, recent increases in violence and poverty in their home countries. Our independent research on the conditions in these countries corroborated what they told us.

These increasingly desperate conditions reflect several longstanding trends in Central America, including rising crime, systemic state corruption and entrenched economic inequality. The children cited the growing influence of youth gangs and drug cartels as the primary reason for their leaving. Not only are they subject to violent attacks by gangs, they ex­plained, they are also targeted by police, who assume that all children are gang-affiliated. Girls also face gender-based violence, as rape increasingly becomes a tool of control.

Children described terrible, harrowing journeys through their home countries and Mexico in order to reach the U.S. border. Yet the overwhelming majority of the children interviewed said they would risk the uncertain dangers of the trip north again, to escape the certain dangers they face at home.

But when the children reach the U.S., they do not always find the welcome they hope for. Many are apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and end up in short-term holding cells.  During the height of the migration, children stayed in such cells for up to two weeks.

The U.S. government is responsible for protecting children who are apprehended alone or without caregivers.  While their legal case is pending, unaccompanied children originally apprehended by CBP are transferred to ORR where they remain until parents, legal guardians or other appropriate caregivers are located.

In response to the influx, ORR worked around the clock to open several emergency “surge” shelters to move children out of CBP holding facilities. Initially, because U.S. authorities were unprepared for the influx and did not have enough appropriate beds available, children spent up to two weeks in short-term CBP facilities, such as border patrol stations, which are grossly ill-equipped to house children for any length of time.

These CBP facilities are not designed for long-term detention or to hold children. The lights stay on 24 hours a day, and there are no showers or recreation spaces. During the influx, they were sometimes so over-crowded that children had to take turns just to lie down on the concrete floor. In some facilities, they did not even have blankets or adequate food.

Some children reported being mistreated by Border Patrol agents. Eduardo, 17, told us that he was crossing the desert on foot near McAllen, Texas, when his group was stopped by Border Patrol. He was one of three youth in his group; the others were a pregnant woman and a guide. Eduardo said that the Border Patrol agents grabbed his neck and shoved him to the ground. They then used a taser gun on him and the other migrants, including the pregnant woman, before handcuffing them. Children also reported having their few belongings torn up or thrown away, including family pictures and Bibles.

We were horrified when we heard their accounts—and found their rights being denied. We believe that the child’s best interest should be the basis for every decision regarding custody, legal procedures, protections, immigration status determinations and repatriation. Policies should ensure that the child’s wishes, safety and familial and cultural needs are in ac­cordance with international humanitarian law and U.S. child welfare principles.

Current U.S. policies, particularly at the border, do not take into account the demographics of the populations arriving—children who are seeking protection. It’s time for the U.S. Government to acknowledge these shortcomings and take measures to address them.

Our findings and recommendations are presented in our new report, “Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America.”

Jessica Jones is the Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, at the Women's Refugee Commission. She works with the Detention and Asylum Program.

Rights and Justice