Crime, violence, and economic poverty were the primary drivers of the influx of unaccompanied minor children at the southern border last year, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found.
At least 68,541 unaccompanied children and 68,445 adults with children came across the southern U.S. border in the 2014 fiscal year, most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Based on a performance audit from September 2014 to February 2015 in Central America, U.S. officials found that a variety of factors added to the surge of immigrants fleeing to the north, especially that growing concerns of gangs, drug trafficking, and criminal organizations affected the three countries on all economic levels. Hondurans dealt with forced conscription and extortion. Meanwhile both Guatemalans and Salvadorans dealt with ineffectual national and local governments unable to respond to violence and gang activity.
In Honduras and Guatemala especially, the spread of the coffee rust fungus has threatened or virtually eliminated economic opportunities for farmers. “Specifically, the USAID official’s reported that the fungus has affected 70 percent of Guatemala’s coffee crop and resulted in the loss of 100,000 jobs and a reduction in coffee output of 15 percent,” the report stated.
In many cases, U.S. officials found that other contributors were domestic abuse, lack of access to education, a desire to reunite with family in the United States, a belief that minors would be allowed to remain in the United States, and misleading market approaches by human smugglers. To a lesser extent, some Hondurans believed that comprehensive immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship would affect “anyone living in the United States at the time of reform” and that “unaccompanied children would be reunited with their families and allowed to stay in the United States.” That belief was eagerly, but erroneously spread by human smugglers, the report found.
Since 2012, critics of President Barack Obama’s executive action to grant some individuals temporary immigration relief have claimed that his action would act as a magnet for Latin American children to cross the southern U.S. border. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) criticized the president for giving families in Central America “false hope” that the children could stay in the country. Other lawmakers like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that the Obama administration was personally responsible for “incentivizing” unaccompanied children with the promise of “citizenship for anyone in the world who arrives illegally in the country by a certain age.”
But the GAO report’s findings dovetail with other reports, which found that Central American kids mainly fled their countries because of the fear of imminent death and poverty. A libertarian study by the Niskanen Center found that fewer unaccompanied alien children (UACs) entered the United States in the three months after the president announced his executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) than the three months before it. A Center for American Progress study found a positive relationship between the number of homicides in a country and the numbers of unaccompanied children fleeing. And an AFL-CIO report found that failed Central American trade and migration policies like the displacement of an increasing number of farmers with multinational corporations has pushed them off their land to expand oil palm cultivation.
The officials included individuals from the Department of State (State), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stationed in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who conducted a series of first-hand interviews with deportees, including unaccompanied children and migrants’ family members, and met with host government and non-governmental agencies.