At a Crossroads Unaccompanied Minors from Central America

The humanitarian crisis on the southern border of the United States began not months ago, but years ago. Since 2011, the number of unaccompanied children (UAC) arriving in the US has steadily grown, driven by the violence, dramatic increase in crime and poverty in primarily three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The US has seen an increase in the number of UAC arrivals from 17,775 in FY 2011 to an estimated 90,000 in FY 2014. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documents an increase of 712% in people from those three countries seeking asylum in the US and other countries in the region, including Panama, Belize, Mexico and Costa Rica. The numbers are so great that it is considered a refugee crisis.

What happens now that these refugees are here? US law provides protection for UAC, protections that are detailed in the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA.) TVPRA lays out the standard of care and protection developed over the course of two decades. There are specific rules for turning UAC over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR,) part of the Health and Human Services Department, where they are screened for medical needs, and to determine if they have a fear of persecution or may be a trafficking victim. In addition, the process for adults or children applying for asylum or refugee status is outlined in §208 if the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) In short, the United States must hold to its laws and its values in dealing with this humanitarian crisis. President Obama has requested money to help manage the crisis, including additional funding for the already overburdened immigration court system.

As the US government responds, the rights of each person seeking refuge in this country must be protected Meaningful access to humanitarian relief and due process must be provided. The law requires that UAC be held in the “least restrictive” manner possible. Detention of families is likewise not desirable. The closing of a family detention facility in Texas in 2009 for abuses and generally poor conditions provides warning of the dangers of such mass detention facilities. Alternatives to detention, including electronic monitoring, have been used successfully nationwide and allow for better access to the help these migrants need.

We have, as a country, been here before. We have responded to humanitarian crisis in the past from the Mariel boatlift ( Cuba) in the 1980s to the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with passengers fleeing China in the 1990s to admission of Iraqi and Afghan refugees in the last decade. We have a heightened responsibility here because the crisis is in our own hemisphere. While providing access to food, shelter and the legal system in this country, we must work with the governments in the countries affected to craft long term solutions so that the next generation of children and even this generation, will no longer grow up in fear.