U.N. Officials Seek Refugee Label For Kids Coming Into America Alone


Immigrant families and children's advocates rally in response to President Barack Obama's statement on the crisis of unaccompanied children and families illegally entering the United States, outside the Los Angeles Federal building in July.

President Obama once declared children who illegally enter the United States a “humanitarian crisis,” but officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) hope that the United States and Mexico will soon view these kids as refugees. The designation could potentially pressure the two countries to consider granting asylum to many of the 52,000 Central American children who have fled their countries due to criminal violence and grinding poverty.

UNHCR officials hope to “discuss updating a 30-year-old declaration regarding the obligations nations have to aid refugees” on Thursday in Nicaragua. The Associated Press stated that “while such a resolution would lack any legal weight in the United States,” officials believe “the U.S. and Mexico should recognize that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn’t be automatically sent to their home countries but rather receive international protection.”

According to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention which the United States follows, refugees are people who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The U.S. determines whether migrants are refugees in deciding whether to deport them back or grant asylum. And UNHCR is hoping to affect U.S. immigration officials’ decision-making with its own refugee definition.

UNHCR official Leslie Velez argued last month that “unaccompanied children and families who fear for their lives and freedoms must not be forcibly returned without access to proper asylum procedures” because the core of refugee protection “is the prohibition of returning a refugee to persecution.” Velez suggested that “asylum-seekers should be identified, screened, and given full and meaningful access to asylum.”

Several recent surveys document the scope of deteriorating security and dire economic conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — the three countries that make up Central America’s Northern Triangle. An UNHCR report found that of 404 Central American children interviewed, a majority might qualify for international protection needs since their home countries could no longer protect them. Honduras is the murder capital of the world, Guatemalan girls are especially prone to a culture desensitized by rape, and homicide victims in El Salvador are predominantly male teens.

A new study released Monday may provide additional support that children are fleeing their home countries to simply survive. That report found that violence is the primary factor that is driving children to flee Central America, notably that there are positive correlations between increasing violence and greater numbers of kids crossing the border alone. The study also found that there was a murder rate of 54 per 100,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in 2012.

However, granting widespread asylum claims would be at odds with White House rhetoric thus far. On Monday, the White House reiterated its message that children will be put into deportation proceedings and said that a large majority of children will not be considered for asylum. On Tuesday, the Obama administration asked Congress to approve for $3.7 billion — up from the previously requested $2 billion — in emergency funds so that more immigration judges can process cases as quickly as possible and “ensur[e] the protection of asylum seekers and refugees while enabling the prompt removal of individuals who do not qualify for asylum or other forms of relief from removal.”