Violence in three Central American countries is the primary reason behind a dramatic upsurge in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the border into the United States, and until conditions in these countries change substantially, this trend will be the new norm, cautions the Women’s Refugee Commission in Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America, a report released today.

Beginning in October 2011, an unprecedent­ed number of unaccompanied alien chil­dren from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began migrating to the United States. From October 2011 to April 2012, U.S. immigration agents apprehended almost twice as many Central American children as in previous years. The Department of Health and Hu­man Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency tasked with the care and custody of these children, had a record 10,005 unaccompanied children in its care by April 2012.
In June 2012, the Women’s Refugee Commission and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP conducted field and desk research to look into the reasons for the sharp increase in the number of chil­dren migrating alone and the U.S. government’s response, including conditions and policies affecting unaccom­panied children. The Women's Refugee Commission interviewed more than 150 detained children and met with government agencies tasked with responding to this influx.
“The majority of the children we interviewed said that their flight northward had been necessitated by the dramatic and recent increases in violence and poverty in their home countries,” said Jessica Jones, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Women's Refugee Commission. “Our independent research on the conditions in these countries corroborated what the children told us.”
These increasingly desperate conditions reflect several longstanding trends in Central America, including rising crime, systemic state corrup­tion and entrenched economic inequality. Children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras cited the growing influence of youth gangs and drug cartels as the primary reason for their leaving. Not only are they subject to violent attacks by gangs, they ex­plained, they are also targeted by police, who assume that all children are gang-affiliated. Girls also face gender-based violence, as rape in­creasingly becomes a tool of control. Almost all of the children decided to migrate because of longstanding, complex problems in their home countries—problems that have no easy or short-term solutions.
“Children described terrible, harrowing journeys through their home countries and Mexico in order to reach the U.S. border,” said Jones. “Yet the overwhelming majority of the children interviewed said they would risk the uncertain dangers of the trip north again to escape the certain dangers they face at home.”
The U.S. government is responsible for protecting children who are apprehended alone or without caregivers. Until parents, legal guardians or other appropriate caregivers are located, these children remain in the custody of ORR while their legal case is pending.
In response to the influx, ORR worked around the clock to open several emergency “surge” shelters to move chil­dren out of Customs and Border Protection holding facilities, where they are ini­tially held after apprehension. Initially, because U.S. authorities were unprepared for the influx and did not have enough appropriate beds available, children sometimes spent up to two weeks in short-term CBP facilities such as border patrol stations, which are grossly ill-equipped to house children for any length of time.
“These facilities are not designed for long-term detention or to hold children,” said Michelle Brané, Director, Detention and Asylum Program, Women’s Refugee Commission. “The lights stay on 24 hours a day, and there are no showers or recreation spaces. During the influx, they were sometimes so overcrowded that children had to take turns just to lie down on the concrete floor. In some facilities, they did not even have blankets.”
While in custody, some children also report being mistreated by Border Patrol agents. Children reported being abused physically and verbally and having their few belongings torn up or thrown away.
The Women's Refugee Commission has long advocat­ed that the child’s best interest be the basis for ev­ery decision regarding custody, legal procedures, protections, immigration status determinations and repatriation. Poli­cies should ensure that the child’s wishes, safety and familial and cultural needs are in ac­cordance with international humanitarian law and U.S. child welfare principles.
“Current U.S. policies, particularly at the border, do not take into account the demographics of the populations arriving, who are seeking protection,” said Brané. “It’s time for the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security to acknowledge these shortcomings and take measures to address them.”
The report lays out recommendations to remedy these gaps, which have become further aggravated as more unaccom­panied children come to the United States, and to protect and bring justice to the children.
“The Women's Refugee Commission looks forward to see­ing the government address these systemic problems through legislative and administrative reform,” said Brané.
The report is available at
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