A Very Disturbing Phenomenon: The Rapid Increase of Unaccompanied Minors Entering the US

By Reid Maki, Director of Child Labor Advocacy and Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

Imagine you are a child. Girl or Boy. You are 13, 14 or 15, and gang members in your school are threatening to beat you, kidnap you, or kill you. They want money, but you are poor. They threaten to harm you and members of your family if you don’t pay them large sums and there seems to be no way for you to obtain those sums. This is the situation faced by increasing numbers of teens living in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as gangs spread increasingly throughout their countries.

The kids are scared to death and clinging to a desperate hope: Escape their tormentors, get to the US, find work, and send money back to protect their families. Unfortunately, the numbers of these “unaccompanied minors” is exploding. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is alerting the public about this new trend, the numbers of children expected to cross into the US without adult supervision is expected to be 60,000 this year. This represents nearly a tenfold increase in the number of unaccompanied minors in just three years.

According to a fact-finding delegation led by the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, there is a “perfect storm” of contributing factors pushing teens to leave their homes and attempt a perilous journey to the US. In addition to the fear of violence from gangs, these “push” factors include:

  • The absence of economic opportunity;
  • The inability of individuals and families to support themselves
  • The lack of quality education and access to education; and
  • The desire to reunify with family members in the US.

The USCCB held a forum on this disturbing trend on January 9th. Among those who attended was a consular official from Guatemala’s diplomatic corp. She told attendees that her country is overwhelmed with the number of migrating children. Since 70 percent of the kids are turned back at the US border, Guatemala is trying to identify funds to deal with the returned migrant youth. They would love to establish programs to help the kids stay in Guatemala, but for the most part the funds are not available.

Migrating teens often make multiple attempts till they make it into the US. USCCB believes that 30 percent eventually make it in, but they often incur significant debts to pay to smugglers—sometimes as much as $5,000 to $8,000. Farms and homes are being mortgaged to pay for these “coyote” fees. So when the teens get to the US, they are often desperate to find work and repay the loans.

The journey to the US is particularly dangerous for the migrating teens. Children are losing limbs as they try to board trains. Teen girls are especially vulnerable. Advocates believe 60% of girls are assaulted or raped on during their trips; nearly one in four become pregnant on the journey. Both boys and girls are vulnerable to being trafficked.

What happens when the children make it to the US? Imagine being here at a very young age and being separated from your family. You may not speak the language. You have no safety net. US nonprofits are struggling to deal with the services needed by this most vulnerable population. From our work on the Child Labor Coalition, we believe that many of these unaccompanied youth may end up performing hand harvest work in agriculture—a difficult, dangerous job. Most of these children will not make it into a school system. Their futures are very uncertain.

What can be done to help the incredibly vulnerable children trying to flee violence and dire poverty in their homelands? The USCCB delegation to the four source countries came up with several recommendations that include providing legal representation to the migrants, considering asylum for those children whose fear of gang violence is credible, having child welfare experts help assess the migrants when they are captured by border agents, and investing in prevention programs in the sending countries. The complete list of recommendations can be found in  USCCB’s report on the fact-finding mission.

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