Of all the controversial nuances of U.S. immigration policy, none strike a stronger emotional chord than unaccompanied minors: Central American migrants or refugees under the age of 18 who travel to the southwestern U.S. border without an adult companion. The overwhelming majority arrive with little more than the clothes on their back and the name and phone number of a relative or family friend somewhere in the country. 85% come from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, a region notoriously characterized by poverty, gang activity, and corrupt governance. The majority leave their home countries to flee violence, reunite with family members, and seek economic opportunity, and 75-80% travel with exploitative, duplicitous human smugglers called coyotes.
In March 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered a record 18,951 unaccompanied minors. July 2021 saw 18,962. The total number of migrant crossings at the U.S. border has successively increased every month since April 2020, including an all-time high 212,672 in July despite the swelter of the world’s hottest month on record. The U.S. is on track to receive well over 130,000 unaccompanied minors in Fiscal Year 2021, a population which would fill over 150 average American high schools. This has resulted in massive administrative congestion: Of the 198,349 new cases U.S. immigration courts received in Fiscal Year 2021 as of July, only 98,916 have been completed, and the backlog of pending cases has reached an all-time high of 1.38 million. Only 2.6% of these cases seek deportation orders based on any alleged criminal activity on the part of the migrant other than illegal entry, and egregious inequities emerge during legal proceedings. Since immigration courts are classified as civil courts, unaccompanied minors aren’t guaranteed any form of legal representation during their detainment hearings. As a result, 80% of the three-quarters of children without an attorney are deported, compared to just 12% of those who have one.
Behind the enormity of this exodus is the treacherous economic and political state of the Northern Triangle. 50.9% of Hondurans live on less than US $5.50 per day, another third are near-poor and vulnerable to falling back into poverty, and 45% of Honduran households reported income losses due to the CoViD-19 pandemic. Globally, Guatemala has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, Honduras ranks 157th in Transparency International’s governmental corruption index, and El Salvador and Honduras respectively exhibit the highest and second-highest homicide rates on Earth. In addition, in November of 2020, amid ongoing, disparate devastation from the pandemic, the Northern Triangle was ravaged by twin Category 4 Hurricanes, Eta and Iota, which decimated homes, farms, and huge swaths of public infrastructure, causing water levels to surge above rooftops, filling entire homes floor-to-ceiling with silt, and affecting over 4.5 million residents.
The horror of these scourges is not lost on Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan citizens. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that 38% of their encounters in May 2021 involved individuals who had already attempted at least one illegal crossing in the previous 12 months. In other words, nearly four out of every ten migrants consist of individuals who are so distraught by the condition of their home country that even a politically apathetic nation that just declared them unworthy to set so much as a blistered foot on their soil and unceremoniously dumped them in the Chihuahua Desert after a grueling, month-long, 2,500-mile voyage still seems preferable to returning to their family, friends, and the only home most of them have ever known.
Legislative pivots from the Biden Administration have begun cautiously opening doors that Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy infamously closed. Although Title 42—a Trump-era, CoViD-related public health law responsible for the swift removal of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers—remains in place, unaccompanied minors are once again being referred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for custody, although not nearly as quickly as required by law. The Administration is still operating four of the fourteen Emergency Intake Sites (EIS) it has opened since March 2021— overcrowded, substandard facilities built at convention centers, converted oil worker camps, and military bases near the southwest border whose living conditions have been described as “shockingly deplorable.” Even so, according to an HHS spokesperson, the cost of these emergency shelters is over two and a half times that of permanent shelters run by domestic, state-licensed human services organizations with whom the Department typically collaborates via contract. Permanent shelters also have the capacity and directive to offer medical and mental health care, case management, and educational programming, although they are only allowed to do so for one to three weeks, depending on each child’s sponsorship release category. While this approach can be effective in ensuring expeditious reunification between children and sponsors, it leaves agencies tiny windows within which to begin treating chronic medical and mental health conditions, compound trauma, and stunted educational attainment— each of which may have been exacerbated by a 40-day-stay in the “filth” of a sweltering, dust storm-ridden EIS.
Republican governors have claimed that allowing unaccompanied children into the U.S. child welfare system may sap resources previously reserved for domestic foster youth: As Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts commented, “I do not want our kids harmed as the result of President Biden’s bad policies.” This partition between children deemed worthy or unworthy of public assistance is also visible in law enforcement. As we are all abruptly reminded every few weeks, anytime a citizen’s child is abducted in the U.S., every smartphone in the state starts blaring with an ear-piercing AMBER alert. No such accommodations are made for unaccompanied minors, however, despite the unchecked abuse, neglect, forced labor, and coercive gang recruitment tactics with which many contend on a daily basis in their home country and throughout their journey north.
Americans continue to pride themselves over the grit of their hardworking, bootstrap-pulling, American-dreaming immigrant grandparents who arrived with nothing and earned everything— many of whom arrived little later in life than the teenage unaccompanied minors we receive today. This constitutes a stark dichotomy: For many, the archetype of the penniless immigrant quietly transforms from one of warm reminiscence to one of hateful disgust based simply on the latter’s epoch and ethnic origin. Well do Brooklyn and Bronx baby boomers remember their parents’ tales of virulent animosity toward Irish and Italian immigrants. Must we propagate the very prejudice under which they suffered?