Lives in the Balance –
Last year, in 2014, a huge surge of unaccompanied minors flooded the Mexican border and crossed into the United States. They numbered over 68,000, and they mostly came from Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Gang violence, drugs, cartel activity, and lawlessness plague these three countries. A 2013 report from the United Nations names Honduras the most violent country in the world, with 91.4 homicides per 100,000 people. Guatemala and El Salvador are not far behind, making the Northern Triangle the world’s second most violent sub-region behind Southern Africa.
These children flee their home countries, and parents make the largest of sacrifices, personally and financially, to get them to safety and family members in the U.S. However, the reality of the situation once the kids arrive in the U.S. can at times be worse than it was on their journey here, and they rarely receive any legal advice or assistance in the U.S. Conditions in I.C.E. detention are abysmal, with 80% of children stating that they do not receive appropriate food and nourishment. Some are even physically abused.
The U.S. does not offer free legal counsel to these minors. Many of them qualify for political asylum, U-visas, or other types of relief, but have no way to identify, build, and present a case in front of a judge without an attorney by their side. An anti-trafficking statute from 2008 guarantees these Central American (not from Mexico) children to be heard in a court before a judge before being deported. They are being given the opportunity, but are in no way prepared once the time for court comes.
As of last October:
- Less than 30% of unaccompanied minors have legal representation in court;
- 85% of these those unaccompanied minors without legal representation end up deported;
- Less than 30% of unaccompanied minors with legal representation are deported – a huge difference.
Pro-bono attorney representation, nonprofits, and other groups are struggling to help these children, whom are largely concentrated in the Rio Grande region in Texas, and must unfortunately turn some away, as even with 16-hour workdays, they cannot meet the needs of so many children. Children wait in facilities for weeks that turn into months, waiting for their turn in court. The federal government must make changes and direct resources to alleviate this situation. These children need protection, safety, and their family, and as a country, we can aid these fellow human beings by making changes to our immigration system and procedures, whether it be provided legal counsel, new programs, or faster processing.
Indeed, the Obama administration has already begun a campaign to deter and dissuade people in Central America form coming to the U.S. Commercials and other propaganda give messages of danger and risk of losing one’s life when making the journey to the U.S. The campaign makes it clear that there are no open borders in the U.S. Additionally, a Department of Homeland Security task force was created to provide relief.
The measures and response from the U.S. government have actually helped reduce the number of unaccompanied minors immigrating from Central America in 2015, cutting the numbers by about half. Things are working, but we are still dealing with tens of thousands of lives in our country’s courts, with their futures in the balance. We need to help these children and give them the opportunity to escape the horrible conditions they have left. It takes a lot to make a person make the perilous journey from the Northern Triangle to the U.S., as they risk becoming one of the tens of thousands of lives lost on the way.