Unaccompanied children sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.

Eric Gay/ AP

Why Kids Are Crossing The Desert Alone To Get To America

About 52,000 unaccompanied children from Latin America have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border since October 2013 with the possibility of another 38,000 arriving by the end of this year. Much of the focus has been on the factors that are pulling these children into the United States like permanent immigration relief, a misperception that some Republicans are eager to stoke in order to extinguish any chances of immigration reform. But less of the spotlight has been on factors like gang violence, enduring poverty, and drug trafficking that are pushing children, some as young as three years old, to make the 1,500+ mile journey to the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the three Central American countries that make up the so-called Northern Triangle.

A recent Congressional Research Services report found that in 2009, Mexican unaccompanied minors accounted for 82 percent of unaccompanied apprehensions, while Central American unaccompanied minors accounted for 17 percent. But in 2014, “the proportions had almost reversed” — Central American unaccompanied minors comprised 73 percent, while Mexican unaccompanied minors comprised 25 percent.

Unaccompanied children — many of whom are female and under the age of 13 — have been fleeing these Central American countries in large numbers since 2009, but they aren’t just fleeing to the United States. Total asylum requests to Mexico, Belize, Panama, and Nicaragua have increased 712 percent.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency found that of 404 children who had left Latin America, at least 58 percent of the children cited “international protection needs,” as in they were seeking protection from the international community because their home governments could no longer protect them. And a 2012 Vera Institute report found that at least 40 percent of apprehended children are eligible for some form of legal relief from removal.

Root causes vary from country to country, but a recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency infographic that details the origin points of 35,000 child migrants apprehended between October 1 and May 14, 2014 stated that “many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating that they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home.” Here are some of the conditions in these three countries that shed light on why children are fleeing to the United States:


Background. Days after a 2009 military coup seized a pajama-clad President Manuel Zelaya and shipped him off to Costa Rica, Colombian drug trafficking gangs diverted their illegal weapons and drug trade routes through Honduras and “turned it into the principal handover point for cocaine to Mexican cartels,” InSight Crime reported. Honduras is cursed as a drug transit route for the South American countries that produce drugs and the North American countries that consume the products. About three-quarters of all U.S.-bound cocaine pass through the country.

Homicide. Known as the murder capital of the world, there are an estimated 85 to 91 killings per 100,000 people, the World Health Organization reported. In comparison, the United States has an estimated five killings per 100,000 people. Honduras’ murder rate averaged about 19 murders each day in 2013. Since 2005, murders of women and girls have increased 346 percent while murders of men and boys have increased 292 percent, the Washington Office on Latin America reported earlier this month. Almost one in every 360 males aged 15 and 29 are victims of intentional homicide. According to recent Customs and Border Patrol data, officials apprehended a huge majority of children fleeing from San Pedro Sula — arguably the world’s most violent city — where there is an average of three murders a day. The second most common origin point from which children are fleeing is Honduras’ capital of Tegucigalpa. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency apprehended 15,027 unaccompanied children from Honduras between October 2013 and June 15, 2014.

Poverty. Two out of three Hondurans live in poverty and only a quarter of children complete middle school. Even the government needed to borrow $100 million to pay its employees, the Associated Press reported. A 2012 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report found that drug trafficking accounts for about 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, so many people rely on the drug cartels for jobs.

Corruption. A Congressional Research Service study found that 75 percent of Hondurans “report having little or no confidence in the police force.” The country’s National Police Chief, General Juan Carlos Bonilla, has been accused of operating “death squads” and ordering the kidnapping of gang members. In fact, a State Department human rights report issued in March found that “hundreds of officers who failed background checks were still on the job,” according to the New York Times.

Gang violence. The country is plagued by the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, which in March 2012 called for a truce to commit zero violence and zero street crime. The truce was momentarily effective, but short-lived. Honduras’ population is young and susceptible to forced gang initiation, since 40 percent of residents are under the age of 15. What’s more, urban gangs coerce young males to transport drugs, a 2012 State Department report found.

A 16-year-old teenager recently told a Washington state television affiliate that he decided to flee violence in his native Honduras because he watched a gang member beat up and kill his grandfather. The teenager told reporter Maria Guerrero that he specifically fled to the United States because his mother, a woman he had not seen for 14 years, was living in the United States.

El Salvador

Background. When a civil war tore apart El Salvador between 1980 and 1992, many fled to the United States. As a result, the two million Salvadorans living in the United States are now the third-largest Latino group in the country behind Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Salvadorans in the United States have very strong ties to Salvadorans back home.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright researcher based in El Salvador, said that assault, disappearance, extortion, and rape are at all-time highs, while homicide rates are “higher today” than during the civil war.

Homicide. With one-fifth the land mass of Guatemala, El Salvador regularly holds the title of No. 2 murder rate for countries not at war, and boasts one of the highest levels of non-political violence. Sixty-eight percent of homicide victims are between the ages of 15 and 34 and nine out of ten victims are male, according to a 2011 Wilson Center report. The peace truce between rival gangs that affected Honduras also led to a drop in homicides from more than 4,000 in 2011 in El Salvador to about 2,500 over the past two years.

Nick Phillips, a print journalist based in Central America, said on a Wilson Center-sponsored conference call on Monday that citizen security has gotten worse, despite the fact that large parts are “functioning normally on a day to day basis.” He cited a poll of 300 people conducted last May by the University of Central America, which found that 71.3 percent of people felt that crime had gone up. Phillips qualified, “official crime statistics aren’t reliable since crime is under-reported because people don’t trust the police.”

Gang violence. Kennedy found that 60 percent of 322 child respondents she interviewed are fleeing gangs (also known as maras). “Of the 322 minors I interviewed, 145 have at least one gang in their neighborhood, and about half of these live in a contested gang territory,” she wrote in an American Immigration Council report released Tuesday.

Two of El Salvador’s largest gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th St — target adolescent boys for gang recruitment and beat them when they do not join. Gangs also target adolescent girls to become “girlfriends” and threaten or rape them when girls refuse. One mother fled with her two daughters to the United States because she wanted them to have a chance to “become women.”

Recent CBP agency data stated that more than 11,436 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the southern border during the 2014 fiscal year through June 15. Phillips explained that Salvadorans hearing from U.S. relatives that they can “stick around the states for a while. They might not know that they’re just getting permission to stay while their immigration [proceedings] are pending, but for all intents and purposes, they can stick around with their families for a while.”

He added that an El Salvadoran official in charge of receiving deportees over the past 2.5 years has “received practically no Salvadoran kids from the United States. At the same time, Mexico is bussing more Salvadoran kids all the time.”


Background. The country’s 36 year civil war, between 1960 and 1996, had a lasting impact on Guatemala’s current problems, with a “whole generation” of men being taught that rape is a “generalized and systemic practice carried out by state agents as a counterinsurgency strategy” and a “true weapon of terror,” the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported. Extrajudicial execution, genocide against the indigenous Mayan groups, and forced disappearance also became the norm. At the same time, “Colombian drug lords controlled the northbound pipeline for contraband but Guatemalan and Mexican traffickers later took over,” the Los Angeles Times said. And the grinding poverty and severe inequality is still a lingering result of Spanish colonialism when large land plots were given to colonizers. At least 12,670 unaccompanied children from the country were caught at the southern border.

Homicide and rape. Although homicides dropped last year, 759 women were still murdered, with at least 522 from firearms, 70 from stabbings, 156 from asphyxiation, and 11 from decapitation or dismemberment. In 2008 alone, more than 6,000 people were killed, mostly due to the drug trade. And in 2012, Guatemala reported an average of 99.5 murders per week.

The country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the region, partially due to the influence of the Catholic Church’s ban on contraceptive use, but also because the criminal justice system barely investigates statutory rape. Last year, at least 61,000 girls between 10 and 19 became pregnant. And in 2011, there were 3,046 births among children between 10 and 14.

“Pregnancy in an underage girl is the product of statutory rape, so logically there should be an equal number of court prosecutions under way, but this is not so,” Mirna Montenegro of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Observatory said.

Gang violence. Much of Northern Guatemala is controlled by the Mexican Zetas cartel, which was formed in the 1990s by former Mexican special forces. Since Mexico’s crackdown on drugs, the Zetas have moved southbound into Guatemala, but that has only enhanced competition between drug cartels. What’s more, Mike McDonald, a Reuters reporter based in Guatamala City said last week to an NPR affiliate that urban street gangs run elaborate extortion schemes on local businesses, bus drivers, and taxi drivers.

Poverty. About 75 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Despite a national social program that aims to improve nutrition, chronic under-nutrition affects at least half of the nation’s municipalities. The World Bank reported that “only 2.5 percent of Guatemala’s farms control 65 percent of the agricultural land, while 88 percent of the farms control only 16 percent of the land.” As a result, villages like San Jose Calderas are “emptying” because there are few farming jobs and fewer jobs in construction.

Political response

Still, American politicians on both sides have responded harshly to the growing population of children at the border. House Republicans have held three hearings attempting to blame the influx of unaccompanied children on President Obama’s supposed lax immigration enforcement policies. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) suggested sending National Guard troops to act on “immediate and aggressive action.” And the White House has been moving quickly on an “aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers,” a White House official told the Los Angeles Times over the weekend. The administration will ask Congress after the Fourth of July recess to approve $2 billion in emergency funds in order to fast-track the deportation proceedings of unaccompanied children.

“Do not send your children to the borders,” Obama recently warned. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.”

The Obama administration previously committed a $250 million aid package to help with the successful repatriation of children once they are returned to Central America. The aid package includes efforts to combat gangs, help at-risk youth who are susceptible to gang recruitment, and improve citizen security in the Northern Triangle.

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