National Edition

Why thousands of migrant children are crossing the U.S. border alone

Published: Tuesday, July 8 2014 7:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 8 2014 11:22 a.m. MDT

This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children crossing alone into the U.S. can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences. The chief reasons are an overburdened, deeply flawed system of immigration courts and a 2002 law intended to protect children's welfare, an Associated Press investigation finds.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

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More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the U.S. border since October 2013, a 92 percent increase from the same time period last year. The surge has created a crisis in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border as U.S. Border Patrol, FEMA, city governments and charities work together to manage the thousands of children who have made it to the border.

Pew Research Center analyzed documents from the Department of Homeland Security to find that poverty and violence are among the main forces driving thousands of minors away from their homes and to the American border. Most of the children came from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. The top three cities sending children to the U.S. are all in Honduras, one of the most violent places in the world.

Pew reports: "The Honduran and Salvadoran child migrants are from some of the most violent regions in those countries. San Pedro Sula (where more than 2,200 unaccompanied minors came from, making up at least 5 percent of all apprehended children since Oct. 1) in Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with a homicide rate of 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 driven by a surge in gang and drug trafficking violence. For the entire country, Honduras’ murder rate was 90 per 100,000 in 2012, the highest in the world. In 2011, El Salvador was not far behind, at 70, ranking second in terms of homicides in Latin America then. Even with a significant drop in the murder rate from 70 in 2011 to 41 in 2012, El Salvador is only surpassed by Honduras, Venezuela and Belize in the entire world."

Pew also reported that Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the poorest nations in Latin America with 30, 26 and 17 percent of their people respectively living on less than $2 a day.

Others have suggested alternative theories why children are coming to the United States. One is to be reunited with family. "According to a recent Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees survey, over a third of Central American children who had crossed the border alone had one or both parents in the United States. It's typical for migrant families to send children once other relatives have gotten settled in the US, but when their relatives here are unauthorized immigrants, the kids have to come illegally — and dangerously — too," Vox reported.

Some have argued that children are being "pulled" to the U.S. by lenient policy. The House Judiciary Committee released a statement Tuesday, blaming the Obama administration for "lax immigration enforcement policies … encourag[ing] more individuals to come to the United States illegally." The statement called for more enforcement, "not another bureaucratic task force," referring to FEMA, which is helping mitigate the influx of migrants at the border.

New York Times writer Frances Robles wrote in June, "Many (unaccompanied children migrants) say they are going because they believe the United States treats migrant children traveling alone and women with their children more leniently than adult illegal immigrants with no children."

In a news interview with ABC News June 26, Obama urged Central American parents to keep their children at home. "Our message absolutely is don't send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers,” he told ABC.

Regardless of why thousands of children are fleeing to the United States unaccompanied, the surge has created what Obama has called "a humanitarian crisis."

Melissa Block, host of NPR's "Around the Nation," interviewed Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, Texas. McAllen has seen about 4,000 people coming through, most of them women and children. Darling agreed that while this was a huge burden on the city, taxpayers and even charities in the area, it is a humanitarian crisis. "I'm not here to debate the immigration process," Darling told Block. "We're just here to make sure that if there's a humanitarian need, we're going to try to meet it."

To learn more, Vox.com has published 13 helpful facts to better understand America's child-migrant crisis.

amcdonald@deseretnews.com

Twitter | @amymcdonald89

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