Learn more about the unaccompanied immigrant children (UAC) crisis

  • [Taken from the Episcopal Public Policy Network July 2014 Newsletter]

Since 2011, the number of unaccompanied immigrant children making the dangerous passage from Central America to the southern border has increased more than seven-fold, with arrivals expected to reach 90,000 children this year. The question at the heart of the debate in Washington, D.C. and in affected communities across the country, is why?

These children, many under the age of 12, are fleeing pervasive and inescapable violence in their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These countries are three of the most violent countries on the planet, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala ranking fourth and fifth. Within these communities of diminishing protections and escalating violence, children, single women, and women heads of household with young children are the most vulnerable and are therefore prime targets for violence and exploitation by the organized crime syndicate, gangs, and security forces. In all three countries, gangs, transnational criminal organizations, and narcotraffickers commit acts of violence with near impunity, while local police forces are either unable or unwilling to offer protection to the public. The State Department actually advises Americans against travel to Honduras or El Salvador, citing specifically the "critically high" levels of violence and inability of police to protect travelers or citizens.

The widely acknowledged tactic of targeting young children for gang recruitment, and the lack of citizen security for all civilians to seek protection or resolution when persecution or violence occurs, has triggered a regional humanitarian crisis years in the making, and has driven tens of thousands of children from their homes. Along this dangerous journey children are at risk for trafficking, extortion, rape and even death, and when they arrive in the United States they are placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Once children are apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol, they are held for no more than 72 hours and then placed in ORR custody where they receive child-centered care, are reunited with families or placed in foster care, and pursue their immigration claim in court. Originally designed to serve between 6,000 and 8,000 children a year, the unaccompanied children's program in ORR will serve an estimated 90,000 children this year and more than 120,000 next year, stretching both the unaccompanied children's program, and the refugee program as a whole, to its financial and capacity limits.

In fact, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has already reprogrammed $94 million away from services for refugees to cover the costs of services for these vulnerable children. This loss of funding unjustly pits the needs of two vulnerable populations against one another: children arriving alone at the border and recently resettled refugees trying to start their lives anew in safety and peace in our communities. Programs that serve refugee children in schools, that help refugees secure employment, and services for elderly refugees will all see cuts this year without additional funding for the care of the children arriving from Central America.

The crisis in Central America's Northern Triangle, however, is not just about children but about adults and families as well. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of women with children and other family units fleeing the pervasive violence of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have arrived in Texas and Arizona. With few resources and nowhere to go, many have been bused by federal officials to Greyhound stations in communities across the southern border, once they are released from detention with a notice to appear in immigration court at a later date. The United States only has one family detention center because the practice of detaining families with children in jails or jail-like settings was recognized as inhumane and costly, and the system was rife with reports of ICE agents failing to meet the basic need of detained families.

When asked why they are fleeing their homes, these women and families cite violence, fear for their children, the desire to reunite with family in the United States, and lack of economic opportunity. Some in the media and in Washington, D.C. have characterized the mixed motivations for migration as a reason to seal the border, increase detention and deportation, and to remove the "magnet" of our generous immigration system, but that does not acknowledge the regional nature of this migration crisis. This outflow of people, seeking security, economic opportunity, and reunification with family members, is not just focused on the United States. Other stable countries in the region, such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Belize have reported that asylum requests from Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadorian nationals are up 712%. Were our immigration programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or asylum the singular "magnet," arrivals from Nicaragua, the poorest country in Latin America and the second poorest in the hemisphere according to the CIA, would be showing similar outflows.

Get involved! 

  • Click here to email Congress to pass the President's emergency supplemental funding proposal and implement policy solutions that are humanitarian focused and maintain legal rights and due process. 
  • Read about the solutions proposed by USCRI.
  • Locate and contact your members of Congress.
  • Spread the word through social media forums! Find your representatives' and senators' Twitter handles at www.twitter.com and urge them to increase funds for ORR. Use the following post/tweet: Ex: .@[their twitter handle] Please increase FY 15 funding for ORR by $200 million so they can meet the needs of unaccompanied children and #refugees. #ChildrenOnTheRun #UACs