Help, don't deport, the Central American children

Feerick Center's Olga Byrne in New York Daily News, July 10, 2014

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By Olga Byrne

Current predictions that 100,000 Central American children will arrive at the southern U.S. border this year have prompted a variety of contrasting reactions from government, the media and the public. While the Obama administration began its discourse over the crisis professing humanitarian objectives, recent statements from Washington — including the President’s apparent commitment to deporting most of these young people — reveal a deep misunderstanding of children’s legal claims for relief.

A dramatic increase in unaccompanied children coming from Central America’s northern triangle — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — began in late 2011. Treacherous violence in the region, where gangs instill terror in young people through shootings, kidnappings, murders and beheadings, as well as a desire to reunite with family members living in the United States, are driving the migration.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than half of the children may qualify for asylum. Lawyers who specialize in representing immigrant children find that up to 90% qualify for some form of relief. The Obama administration, in contrast, is saying that most of the minors will not qualify for humanitarian protection.

What’s the truth? Most of these kids should in fact qualify for relief — but only a fraction will actually win their cases, thanks to our broken immigration system. In recent years, fewer than 10% of unaccompanied children have even applied for asylum, and reported grant rates range from 17% to 87% depending on the jurisdiction.

Special immigrant juvenile status and visas for trafficking and crime victims fill some of the asylum system’s gaps, but application and approval rates for these forms of relief similarly fall short of the reality of their claims. Lack of appointed counsel for children and other procedural barriers explain the discrepancy.

The Obama administration draws the conclusion that children who are not accessing relief (albeit due to shortcomings in the system) should be screened at the border and deported more quickly. Such an approach would undoubtedly be a death sentence for many children, as child victims of persecution or trafficking are unlikely to reveal details of the abuse they suffered to a border patrol official in a detention facility. Moreover, children who are turned away at the border are likely to just keep coming back.

Instead, the Obama administration should be developing a coherent response to the crisis that involves short- as well as long-term planning on local, national and regional levels.

In the short-term, children must be provided with legal counsel and a child advocate to promote their best interests upon arrival. Locally-based initiatives should be developed to work with youth and their families in order to ensure optimal integration into schools, the community and, when appropriate, the workforce.

Coordinated efforts are percolating in New York, where the impact of the child migration surge is already being felt. The majority of unaccompanied children are released from federal custody to family living in the United States who will welcome them into their homes. A significant number end up in New York.

School officials describe challenges meeting special educational needs, such as limited English proficiency or interrupted formal education, but equally emphasize the resilience and motivation of unaccompanied children and a desire to invest in their futures.

In the long-term, the U.S. must work with Latin American countries in a joint effort aimed at truly addressing the root causes. Brutal violence and insecurity are the key push factors that cause children to leave; underlying the civil unrest is an even deeper social and economic crisis.

In Guatemala, for example, only 40% of children are enrolled in secondary school and prospects of them obtaining decent work are slim or nonexistent. Long-term development efforts directed at improving the social and economic positions of Central American youth are necessary to guarantee that young people will truly have the option of remaining in the country of their birth.

The numbers present an astounding increase from previous migration patterns. But if we consider that Syrian refugees make up nearly one quarter of the population of Lebanon, the arrival of 100,000 youngsters fleeing death threats and torture in neighboring countries should not overwhelm a developed country with a population of over 300 million. Likewise, a few thousand should not overwhelm a metropolitan area of 20 million.

As the White House contemplates policies that have the potential to send children on a death march back to countries where they are being persecuted, New Yorkers have an opportunity to respond positively to the child migration crisis in a way that promotes the safety, well-being, and basic human rights of children.

Byrne is director of the Feerick Center’s New York Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project at Fordham Law School.