Talk about bad timing. In an election year rife with anti-immigrant sentiment, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics show that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from Central America have spiked to levels near those in the first six months of fiscal year 2014, when the issue became a political football and a source of hysteria for some Americans.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, CBP apprehended 27,754 unaccompanied minors on the U.S.-Mexico border during the fist six months of the 2016 fiscal year, which began this past October 1. That's close to the mark reached for the first six months of fiscal year 2014 (28,579) and 78 percent higher than apprehensions during the first six months of fiscal year 2015.
Totals for this year could exceed 2014's record high of 68,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended, according to Wendy Young, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense (KiND), an organization co-founded by actress Angelina Jolie, which works to pair volunteer attorneys with children seeking asylum in this country.
"I've heard numbers of anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000," Young tells New Times.
Young says the current surge, like the one in 2014, is propelled by the violence, poverty, and lawlessness in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where children are literally "running for their lives" from gangs, narco-traffickers, and "transnational criminal cartels" that target children.
"They're going after children both to intimidate communities and recruit kids into their midst," Young explains. "They're taking girls as sex slaves, and unfortunately the governments in the region are too weak, in some cases too corrupt, to control the violence."
According to Pew, there's also a spike in minors traveling with family members, with more than 32,000 family members detained in the first six months of the current fiscal year — compared to the 13,913 family members detained on the southern border during the first half of fiscal year 2015.
Young says many of the family units are young mothers with very young children. Many are from Central America. And many are housed in what she describes as "large, institutional, jail-like detention facilities" run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security while they await deportation hearings.
As was the case in 2014, most unaccompanied minors and family units are being apprehended in the Rio Grande sector. But there have been significant increases in apprehensions in Arizona's Tucson and Yuma sectors, as well.
Under federal law, unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico or Canada are supposed to be transferred by DHS to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
ORR's website states that the average stay for minors in its custody is 34 days, and that the overwhelming number of them are turned over to family members. Young says that about 10 percent of these minors have no family in the U.S. and may remain in custody for months.
Each child is guaranteed his or her day in immigration court to fight deportation, but the federal government does not provide attorneys for the children. That's where Young's group helps out.
It's worth noting that unaccompanied minors make up only a small fraction of CBP apprehensions. (In fiscal year 2014, during the last surge, unaccompanied minors accounted for just 14 percent of the total number of persons CBP apprehended that year.)
And illegal immigration in general is at historic lows, according to CBP statistics. In fiscal year 2000, the agency apprehended 1.6 million undocumented immigrants. That number has steadily declined year by year, to just over 337,000 in the 2015 fiscal year — a drop of nearly 80 percent.
Last month, Pew reported that the number of Mexicans apprehended by CBP had "dropped to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years." Mexican nationals still account for more than half of all apprehensions in fiscal year 2015.
Why was there a lull in unaccompanied minors in fiscal year 2015? Young says it's because after 2014, the U.S. began to fund the Mexican government's efforts to stop Central Americans at Mexico's southern border and send them back home. "From a law-enforcement perspective that was working," says Young. "Then the smugglers shifted their routes. So they managed to work their way around Mexican enforcement."
And because the poverty and violence in Central America persists, so does the flow of migrants (though Young adds that migrants also seek refuge in more stable countries in the region, such as Costa Rica and Nicaragua).
Young says the root causes of the violence that propels the migration, such as drug trafficking and the breakdown in the rule of law, must be addressed. But even then, a change in the situation will not occur overnight.
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Meanwhile, Young worries about public reaction to a new spike in migrant children crossing the border, particularly during a political season where the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, has suggested building a wall on the southern border and talked of expelling all undocumented immigrants.
In 2014, angry, anti-immigrant crowds in various parts of the nation targeted detention centers and other places where the immigrant children were being taken. At the time, even mainstream politicians, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said kids crossing the border alone should returned to their home countries.
"We are quite concerned that there will be a huge backlash against these kids," Young says, "and that we're going to forget that they're refugees and we're going to forget that they are children and adopt even harsher law-enforcement policies to push them back."