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What Brookings Scholars Are Saying about the Surge of Unaccompanied Children at the U.S. Border

Honduran Kendri Hernandez, 3, sits on a bed as he plays with toys inside a Catholic migrant shelter in San Luis Potosi, June 26, 2014. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso)

"The fate of 47,000 children, most of them from Central America and the prospect of 43,000 more children crossing the Texan border illegally by the end of 2014 poses a serious challenge to the laws of the United States and our humanitarian values," writes Brookings Fellow Diana Villiers Negroponte in her recent primer on the influx of thousands of Central American children across U.S. borders. We should, she says, pursue policies that "balance our respect for immigration laws and due process with humanitarian values which ensure that the child will be cared for both in the United States and, when appropriate, upon return to the sending country."

Who are these children?

According to Negroponte, "three quarters of recently arrived and unaccompanied children originate from the three northern Central American states: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala."

She cites U.S. Border Patrol data to show the rising volume of unaccompanied children apprehended:

  • 16,067 in FY 2011
  • 24,481 in FY 2012
  • 38,333 in FY 2013
  • 47,017 in FY 2014’s first eight months (Oct. – May)
  • 90,000 (estimated) by the end of FY’14 (September 30)

Why are they coming here?

Negroponte cites two push factors—economic conditions and violence in the region; and two pull factors—2.5 million Central Americans who already live in the U.S., and criminal social networks throughout the Americas. As poor economic conditions in Central America and the region’s violence cause an outflow of children from these regions, the large number of Central Americans living in the U.S. make the U.S. an attractive option for child migration. Additionally, as Negroponte points out, “criminal social networks operating throughout the Americas have created human trafficking rings.”

At a Brookings roundtable event earlier this year focusing on Central Americans displaced by criminal violence, particularly in the "Northern Triangle":—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala— experts suggested that while "the response by some agencies in the United States has been to classify the dramatic increase in Central American arrivals as motivated by economic need … USAID is increasingly emphasizing the need for violence-prevention and rehabilitation in the region." Moreover, "it is important to recognize the role of national governments in the region in addressing the violence provoking this large-scale movement of people."

However, one participant in the roundtable observed that "the categories of people we are trying to help do not fall nicely into our institutional categories of economic migrants (presumed to be voluntary in our legal systems) or asylum-seekers (presumed to be forced)."

Another participant in this discussion worried that the influx of children this year "may represent the 'canary in the coalmine' and presage a larger movement of adults in the future."

What happens to the arrivals?

It depends on whether the child is from a contiguous country with the U.S. (Canada and Mexico) or not. As Negroponte explains:

Children originating from a non-contiguous country are subject to distinct legal procedures from those originating in Mexico or Canada. The former are transferred from the Border Patrol to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that is responsible for processing and sheltering unaccompanied minors. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act [pdf] (TVPRA) children from non-contiguous states must be transferred to ORR within 72 hours and simultaneously placed in removal proceedings with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), within the Department of Justice.

Many of these children do not qualify for refugee status, due to the complications and difficulties facing defense attorneys in proving the legal requisites for refugee asylum seekers. About half of the children may be sent back to their countries of origin, where they will face the same conditions that pushed and pulled them to the U.S.

Is the DACA program to blame?

To explain this influx, some have turned to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows children who came here illegally and who meet certain requirements to temporarily remain. Nicole Prchal Svajlenka and Senior Fellow Audrey Singer point out that "House Republicans are trying to tie the influx specifically to the program" but explain that these border crossers are not eligible for the program. While "the humanitarian situation on the border is complex and worrisome," they say, "regarding DACA, we should really be focusing on the beginning of the renewal process" because the benefits last only two years.

In a report last year on the DACA-eligible population, Singer and Svajlenka determined that, after Mexico, which accounted for nearly 75 percent of all DACA applicants, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala ranked in the next three spots.

What should be done in response to the crisis?

Among Negroponte's policy recommendations, she argues that "federal law enforcement authorities must confront and prosecute criminal organizations which profit off unaccompanied children, as well as other undocumented migrants," efforts that will require transnational participation. She also suggests that, due to the legal complexities, "apprehended children need to be screened by ORR as swiftly as possible to determine the validity of their claims" and that "distinctive treatment between those arriving from Mexico and Canada and those arriving from non-contiguous states may have to end."

In the meantime, however, she says the more "immediate task is to send a strong disincentive message to the adults who both send and receive these children."

Read all of her recommendations.

The roundtable participants concluded that the "U.S. system for processing displaced persons who cross the border illicitly is not designed to differentiate among motives for flight." Moreover, "U.S. policies toward the region have emphasized Central American security, but the relationship with displacement/migration has not been adequately addressed." Further, panelists said, "it is important to recognize the role of national governments in the region in addressing the violence provoking this large-scale movement of people."

What can be done more broadly about the immigration system?

"We've got a situation where people are unwilling to have really constructive discussion about immigration policy and how to change our laws," Audrey Singer said. "That's the context this series of events has to be placed in."

Fellow John Hudak recently wrote of President Obama's move in late June to use executive action to address the broken immigration system in the face of congressional inaction on reform. "The best and broadest solution is legislation," Hudak notes, but "in the meantime, the president will figure out what small changes the law will let him implement on his own."

Singer and Andrew Wainer look to cities and states as the "new immigration-policy innovators" because federal policy reform is gridlocked. "It is federal, not state or local, policy that controls the laws that allow immigrants to enter the country to live and work," they write. "As long as immigration reform remains stuck in Congress, states and cities will continue to generate new policies, for better or for worse."


To learn more, visit:

The Surge in Unaccompanied Children from Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis at Our Border

Central Americans Displaced by Criminal Violence: A Roundtable Discussion

DACA Renewals Ramp Up

The Constraints of Executive Action on Display in Immigration Fix

Immigration Policy: Is Federalism the Answer?