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Uncertain Futures: Child Refugees Along the South Texas Border

News & Features | April 27, 2015

In the summer of 2014, an estimated 57,000 unaccompanied minors flooded the south Texas border fleeing conflict-ridden areas in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Due to the lack of sufficient resources to accommodate these refugees, centers overflowed with children. These children were living under inhumane conditions and lacked sufficient food, water, and medical care. In addition, they faced slow legal processing and possible deportation regardless of their countries’ unstable economy or rampant gang violence. As 2015 progresses, more children will make the same journey across the border, but given the current immigration policies, it is unclear if they will receive the proper welcome they deserve.

While last summer saw an unpredicted surge of refugees, this issue is not new. For years, numerous NGOs and international institutions have attempted to shed light on the growing immigration crisis. After the past summer’s influx, the Obama administration has enacted a few policies to alleviate this issue. However, these policies are set to help only a fortunate few and leave the rest of the refugees stuck in detainment centers awaiting a decision on their refugee status.

What gets lost in dominant discourse about immigration and morality are the push factors existing in refugees’ countries of origin that make their migration necessary. The main reason many Latin American children have left their homes to journey to the United States is the increase of gang violence in their countries. Gang members impose a major threat by seeking to recruit these children and kill them if they do not comply with their demands. These gangs originate from former Honduran and El Salvadorian refugees who immigrated to the United States to escape the civil wars that tore apart both countries in the 1980s. Refugees traveled to Los Angeles only to become heavily entrenched in American gang culture and then were deported back to their home countries where the same American-born gangs flourished and multiplied. Gangs like the MS13 in San Salvador have taken control of their communities and forced young children to either join them or risk their lives and those of their families. The increase of gang presence within these communities, paired with their struggling economies and high rates of unemployment, influences the families to send their children to America in hopes of attaining safer living arrangements.

The reason that this crisis affects children from Latin America more than it affects those escaping danger in Mexico and Canada is that the legislation caters specifically to Latin American children. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act protects Latin American child refugees from the immediate deportation that awaits children crossing from Mexico or Canada. This act grants each child a court hearing to determine their status as refugees instead of immediately sending them back after they have been detained. Latin American children awaiting trial have the opportunity to stay with a family member residing within the states; however, before they reach this step, some of them spend weeks apprehended within a detainment center.

During the summer of 2014, the ACLU reported that refugee children lacked essential needs and were subjected to sexual and physical abuse within these detainment centers. Moreover, children slept huddled together on the floor of overcrowded centers, covered only by thin Red Cross blankets. The law states that children are supposed to be detained for only 72 hours, however the increase in the number of refugees has slowed down this process. Instead of addressing these humanitarian issues, those in charge of detainment centers, such as the GEO group, deny claims of abuse and overcrowding in their facilities.

In addition, due to last year’s influx of Latin Americans at the border, the Obama administration proposed expediting the deportation process by subsequently returning thousands of refugees back into dangerous living conditions. The UNHCR reported that over 60 percent of children were eligible for humanitarian protection; however, the proposal for expedited removal could mean that the majority of child refugees will be inevitably turned away in the next few months.

In anticipation of the surge of border crossing expected into the US this summer, the Obama administration has created new policies and requested a $3.7 billion increase in funding for several government departments involved in immigration policy and enforcement. Additionally, in November, the Obama administration revealed a new plan that would work with governments in El Salvador and Guatemala “to provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative” to making the dangerous trek to the United States. With the new policy, the Obama administration is hoping to “establish an in country refugee/parole program” within these countries.

The new policy also promises to provide refuge and a quick legal process to children who are under 21, unmarried, and have at least one parent living within the states. In early March, the Senate finally passed the immigration bill allowing for the distribution of funding to immigration programs. Only time will tell if the funding granted will improve and expedite child refugees’ time under the care of the US Customs and Border Protection.

While this policy is projected to improve the legal process for many children, it would only apply to roughly 30 percent of the children who came to America in the last year. The majority of the children who traveled to the states had no parent to greet them once they arrived. In addition, the US only expects to accept approximately 4,000 Latin American refugees into the US Refugee Admissions program within the 2015 fiscal year. The amount of children crossing the border within the next few months is expected to far exceed this number, making it highly unlikely that the US Refugee Admissions will be able to absorb all of them. While some of the policies in place by the Obama administration have the potential to improve the refugee crisis on the south Texas border, many issues regarding the structure of detainment facilities and refugee requirements remain prevalent within the immigration system and continue to harm those who need the most protection.

Given the recent aid approved by the Senate and policies established by the Obama administration, there may be a better future in sight for some refugee children. However, the exclusivity of the policies and the continued presence of detainment centers with inhumane accommodations also point towards a harrowing future for those who were not saved by the Obama administration’s new policies. It is unclear how many refugees will cross the border in the next few months; it is also unclear how they will be received given the newest reforms. The only hope is that as more children seek refuge, this issue will continue to remain at the forefront until these refugees receive the treatment and care they deserve.

Art by Tess Dennison.