Why are child immigrants fleeing Central America alone?

by Kent Covington
Posted 6/10/14, 01:33 pm

The United States is seeing an alarming surge in illegal border crossings, including thousands of children making the dangerous trek without a parent or guardian. This week, officials confirmed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is holding in a warehouse in Nogales, Ariz., about 750 minors who were caught crossing the border illegally from Mexico into Texas. 

The upsurge of unauthorized crossings is leading to what some are now calling a humanitarian crisis. Sylvia Longmire is a former intelligence analyst, an expert on border violence and trafficking, and author of the book Border Insecurity.

Give us a snapshot, if you would. What’s happening right now along the border, and why? What’s happening is that word is starting to spread throughout countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador—places where the security and the economic situation have been very, very poor for some time—that families and children are being released on their own recognizance by current immigration policies in the United States. Now seems to be the time for them to send their families, their children, north, especially to South Texas, and Border Patrol is being overwhelmed in that part of the border.

You say people are being released on their own recognizance. What does that mean? They’re basically being released, … and they’re being told to return to or report into an ICE agent—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—within 15 days. They’re just being let go and told, come back of your own free will. Most of them will not. If it’s children who are unaccompanied, then they have to deal with social services and they try to reunite them if they have family members in the United States. … However, if they’re unaccompanied and they don’t have any family here—there’s a decent number of those children—they have to go into the social services system. They try to find foster homes for them where they can be cared for here, and then it basically lands on the doorstep of the U.S. government. 

A lot of people have the impression that nearly everyone coming across the border illegally is from Mexico. But that is actually not the case, and that makes the problem a little more difficult, right? Right. It’s a more complicated issue when you’re dealing with Central American migrants. If they were Mexican immigrants, the border’s right there. It’s very easy … just to deport them right on the spot. However, when you’re dealing with Central American migrants, they have to be flown back, and most of them are claiming “credible fear.” When they do that, by law Border Patrol has to conduct an interview to determine why they’re afraid to return to their country of origin. … You’ve got violent gangs that are recruiting children as young as 9 years old under penalty of death to them or their family members in Honduras, and most people understand this. That’s why they’re being released, because they have the right to appear before an immigration judge if they are granted credible fear. So that’s why the situation is a little different for the immigrants from Central America, which comprises the bulk of these folks that we’re seeing right now overwhelming the border.

Having such a porous border is a security issue for the United States, but crossing the border in that way is very dangerous for the people crossing, is it not? It’s extremely dangerous, having to ride what they call “The Beast” or “La Bestia,” that train in Mexico that takes immigrants north illegally. They’re not supposed to be on that train. And so many of them fall off the train, they get killed because of the train, they get assaulted. Eight out of 10 women who try to make that trip north get raped. It’s horrible. And then once you make it to the desert, to get on foot and cross into places like Arizona you have the environmental factors to deal with, the extreme heat, the lack of water. Some of those migrants, they know how dangerous a journey it is, but others, especially teenagers and young kids, they have no idea. … It’s not one to be taken lightly, but so many people are so desperate to escape their situation, whatever it might be, in those countries. They fear returning home more than they fear anything that awaits them on that journey north.

Listen to more of Kent Covington’s conversation with Syliva Longmire on The World and Everything in It:

Lynde Langdon contributed to this report.