What awaits the tens of thousands of Central American children who flee on foot to the United States isn’t necessarily a happy life. It’s intolerance. It’s claims of disease and terrorism. And it’s lawmakers voting on legislation to kick them back to their native countries.
But this week, a photo exhibit in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate building in Washington, D.C. will put an actual child’s face on the issue to force lawmakers to look at the problem that they’re trying to deport.
The photos on display are part of the art exhibit Children Don’t Migrate, They Flee, a series of photos documenting the mass exodus of unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. Organized by The Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking and Too Young to Wed, the exhibit includes submissions from five different photographers.
Children have been leaving Latin America for the United States for years, but increasing gang violence and death threats are now driving more of them to make perilous journeys northward. Americans really began to pay attention to the crisis when there was a sharp uptick in the number of children overcrowding holding cells (or detention centers) along the southern U.S. border in 2014. The number of unaccompanied children making the journey declined in the last fiscal year, but there has since been a 117 percent increase when compared to the same time period last year.
That’s a sign of more desperation that people are willing to send for their children.
“It’s a reality that’s existed for a really long time and definitely the factors have changed,” Katie Orlinsky, one of the photographers whose work is featured in the exhibit, told ThinkProgress. “The sheer volume of unaccompanied children has increased and that’s a sign of more desperation that people are willing to send for their children. It’s so dangerous that they rather risk a child traveling this incredibly dangerous migrant trail than have them stay in their home countries.”
Orlinsky has been a photographer for ten years, following children along the “hot spots” that migrants travel through on the southern Mexican border. She has also taken photos of children traveling on La Bestia, an infamous train that slices across Mexico in a north-south direction. While hitching a faster journey northbound, thousands of migrants have died or have been almost fatally maimed from falling off the train.
“The exhibition focuses on the journey — which for many families and children is rife with violence, exploitation, and the risk of trafficking into sex and labor — the risks are so great that they were more tolerable than what, we believe, they were forced to endure in Central America,” Melysa Sperber, the director of the Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking (ATEST), explained to ThinkProgress. “This demonstrates to us that the conditions and the root causes that are driving children and their families from the Northern Triangle remain unchanged and largely ignored by U.S. policymakers.”
Orlinsky took part in the photo exhibit because she wanted to highlight some of the issues that have presented themselves when the U.S. tacitly endorsed, or even funded, Mexico to prevent children from making it into the United States.
As part of Mexico’s Programa Frontera Sur, or the South Border Program, Mexican officials are turning to harsh tactics to prevent migrants from making it into the Untied States. Fewer Central Americans are making it past Mexico, with Mexican officials failing to properly screen migrants for protection. Only 21 percent of requests for refugee status were approved in 2014 and during the first seven months of 2015, according to a Washington Office on Latin America report.
“We’re pouring money into a government that’s corrupt and known for human rights abuse,” Orlinsky pointed out. “While the numbers [of unaccompanied minors] are going down, that doesn’t mean that there are less people trying to come or that the situation [in Central America] is getting better. In fact it’s just getting a lot more dangerous and harmful for migrants.”
Organizers of the photo exhibit contend that putting photos in the government building may sway policy decisions, particularly when it comes to children who may be trafficked into the country for nefarious reasons. The photography has already sparked some bipartisan approval.
“When I was up on the Hill yesterday putting up the exhibit, Sen. Blunt [R-MO] came and took a look at the photos. I wouldn’t say that we expect an opinion on the policy issues, but he was happy to see the exhibit in the rotunda,” Sperber said.
“We must work to raise awareness and protect the vulnerable among us, which too often means children,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told Roll Call.
Still, photos may not be enough to stop deportation operations like the one that occurred earlier this year, which targeted primarily Central American mothers and children. Some immigrant advocates believe that the administration made unannounced raids to stem future border crossings.
These are real children with bright futures who are interesting and smart and could be any one of us.
But the administration is also appearing to step up its acknowledgment that there is a growing crisis in Central America. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States, currently held at 3,000 for individuals from Latin American and the Caribbean. While the initiative could potentially help thousands of people, a previous iteration of a similar refugee program just for Central American minors was snagged by red tape — only 90 children were interviewed as of November 2015. In the meantime, the deportation raids may continue without an end in sight.
“These are real children with bright futures who are interesting and smart and could be any one of us,” Orlinsky said. “It forces us to look at their faces and undestand just how much they go through to come to the states and be treated poorly.”