Although numbers eased somewhat in July and August, the children’s immigration crisis remains the most pressing immigration issue of the day.
Since October 2013, more than 52,000 children have been taken into custody. Most are from Central America, and a large proportion are not accompanied by parents or guardians. Their numbers represents a ten-fold increase from 2009. Twice as many unaccompanied children arrived this year than did in the last.
In large part, the current crisis is fueled by violence in Central America. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are all facing high levels of gang violence, which is closely related to the illegal drug trade. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 58 percent of the unaccompanied immigrant children are migrating for safety reasons.
This fact has led many organizations and officials, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to urge that the children be treated as refugees, even as immigration reform opponents blame the crisis on lax immigration policy and enforcement.
Other factors are also in play. For children from poor, rural parts of Guatemala and El Salvador, economic strain can provide the motivation to migrate. For those who already have family members in the United States, the desire to reunite with family may be central — especially because in Central America, the idea that children can easily reunite with U.S. relatives is prevalent.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the U.S. government cannot return migrant children from Central America to their home countries as easily and quickly as they can those from Mexico. This is a result of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a law designed to curb child trafficking. The law requires that children from Central America receive a court hearing before deportation.
Due to the influx of unaccompanied child immigrants, a years-long backlog has accumulated. Most children stay with U.S. relatives while they wait; the rest enter the foster care system.
Congressional sluggishness adds another layer of difficulty. This year, Congress has failed to pass anticipated immigration reform. In response, President Obama is expected to release an executive order which will address the child immigration crisis, as well as other aspects of immigration law.
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