IN 2014, the public was caught off guard by a “humanitarian crisis” when nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the southern U.S. border from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The U.S. federal government scrambled to respond by hurriedly opening temporary processing centers on military bases along the U.S.-Mexico border and readying dozens of facilities for unaccompanied minors and migrant families.1 Juan Gabriel was one of these youths. Community members from his hometown of Sipacapa who denounced the violence inflicted by security forces protecting the Canadian Marlin mine were found beaten or were killed under seemingly mysterious circumstances. “The police harassed us when we spoke up,” Juan Gabriel explained. “There was no way out, no way to be safe or get help.” Recognizing few ways to escape the physical and environmental consequences of the mine, Juan Gabriel migrated to the United States with his twenty-eight-year-old cousin. Upon arrival, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended Juan Gabriel, separated him from his cousin, and classified him as an unaccompanied minor.
Most migrants like Juan Gabriel hoped to be granted asylum, which, like refugee status, protects those who have a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries. But the Obama administration maintained that young Central Americans were economic migrants, not refugees, and requested $3.7 billion in emergency appropriations and additional discretionary powers to ensure the “faster repatriation” of children to their countries of origin. This included implementing “rocket dockets” to expedite their processing and deportation.2 Advocates decried that these rapid deportation procedures violated international human rights law and disregarded the specialized protections provided to unaccompanied children under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008.3 Denouncements of these expedited procedures continue today under the Donald Trump administration.
Attorneys were thrown into overdrive. Newly established rocket dockets for children and families forced lawyers to prepare legal petitions for asylum within two weeks, a process that previously took at least one year. If they were lucky enough to receive a visit from voluntary legal organizations while in detention, unaccompanied children were expected to share their traumatic experiences in their first meeting with a paralegal; parents in family detention facilities were expected to divulge the reasons for migration in the presence of their young children. A volunteer attorney, Sara, traveled from Chicago to the Artesia Family Residential Center located in rural New Mexico, a private, for-profit facility nearly three hours from the nearest major airport. Following her visits with women and children at Artesia, Sara shared:
It is an impossible scenario. I have to interview a woman who has been gang-raped by police, forcing her to disclose every detail she can remember in order to quickly assemble a viable legal claim for asylum. But the facility won’t let her leave her children in someone else’s care, so we are in a tiny trailer with her two kids playing at her feet. She is bawling and doesn’t want to talk about her experiences, not to mention in front of her children. It goes against every impulse I have as a human and as a mother, and it defies my training as a lawyer.
Attorneys and paralegals around the country traveled to often remote facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border where children and families were and continue to be held in what legal advocates call “family detention camps” and “baby jails.” Sara’s experiences interviewing women and children in these facilities reveal the brutality of immigration detention and the broader U.S. deportation regime that coerce migrants and their advocates to comply with convoluted, violent, bureaucratic processes and compel their advocates to contort migrants’ experiences into increasingly narrow forms of legal relief.
Juan Gabriel was initially detained alongside adults for seventy-two hours in a U.S. Border Patrol hielera (icebox), a holding cell known among migrants for its frigid temperatures. He was later transferred to a converted military hangar in Texas that held thousands of unaccompanied minors. He never was asked about the reasons for his migration, nor his fears should he be returned. He never met with an attorney nor received an audience before an immigration judge. He was not transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which has maintained legal purview over the detention of unaccompanied minors since 2003. Instead, he was deported to Guatemala six weeks later.
Pundits and policymakers largely attributed the influx of young migrants to an increase in gang violence, child abuse, and deepening poverty in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Others speculated that migrating children expected to receive permiso (permission) to enter the United States, spurring their arrival in such high numbers. Like the Obama administration, most policymakers dismissed and continue to dismiss children as migrants in search of economic opportunities, rather than view them as refugees fleeing violence and instability. If popular accounts of young migrants’ motives are distorted, so too are the depictions of their character and behavior upon arrival in the United States. Conservative media outlets engaged in flagrant fearmongering, depicting young migrants as gangbangers, delinquents, and disease carriers who threatened the U.S. homeland.4 Parents of young migrants did not fare any better. On both sides of the political divide, narratives of naive, undevoted, uneducated, and often predatory parents thrusting their children into the hands of violent smugglers seeped into public discourse and public policy.
These discourses are not new, and disturbingly, they have not dissipated over time.5 In the United States, unaccompanied children have long been cast either as victims deserving of care and services or as unauthorized outlaws subject to state discipline via detention and deportation.6 These characterizations have only deepened under the Trump administration. In 2018, claiming a “crisis at the U.S. border,” then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacted a “zero-tolerance” policy, which ramped up criminal prosecutions for the unauthorized entry of migrants while forcibly removing children from their undocumented parents. In effect, the Trump administration rendered over 4,200 children “unaccompanied.” Under past administrations and contrary to U.S. law, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have separated migrant children from their parents. The scale in 2018, however, was unprecedented, with nearly 2,500 children placed in the Tornillo detention camp in Texas, adding to the already 49,100 children held in ORR facilities throughout the United States. While accelerating and intensifying anti-immigrant policies, the Trump administration’s approach to migrating children is consistent with a long line of U.S. administrations that have treated unaccompanied minors as threats requiring containment and removal.
Notably absent from both the 2014 and the 2018 “crises” were discussions of the role of U.S. policy in destabilizing Central America. U.S. interventions in Central American armed conflicts since the 1960s actively have undermined democratically elected presidents in a quest to suppress the spread of communism and to advance American business interests in the region. Not discussed were the ways unequal multinational trade agreements such as the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) have deepened social inequality, making everyday survival of families like Leticia’s, Juan Gabriel’s, and Manuel’s increasingly precarious. Also dismissed were analyses of how multinational extractive industries have invaded Central America, displacing primarily Indigenous communities and contaminating the land of predominantly agrarian nations. Instead, U.S. policymakers continue to prioritize securitization policies and programs within the United States and increasingly through Mexico by means of walls, technology, and military might rather than meaningful and systemic investment in social and economic programs in Central America. This remains U.S. foreign policy strategy, despite recognized research that these approaches produce transnational organized crime, enhance government corruption, and as a consequence, create increasingly costly and perilous journeys for migrants.
Historically, U.S. refugee and asylum policies have systematically discriminated against Central Americans. Today, even with recognition from the U.S. courts of these discriminatory practices, petitions for asylum by Central Americans are rarely approved. Attempts to limit asylum petitions on the basis of forced gang conscription, domestic violence, or gender identity have only narrowed the few avenues for securing legal protections in the United States. In addition, decades-long delays in family reunification petitions for Central >Americans who lawfully reside in the United States merely decrease children’s options for reuniting with their parents. While people are often reduced to simplified understandings of migranthood—or how migration is socially constructed, practiced, and experienced—there is minimal acknowledgment of the role of the United States in producing it. Although much of the responsibility lies with the U.S. government and its policies, Central American governments likewise are complicit in inflicting violence on their citizenry through corruption, racism, and marginalization of Indigenous peoples, and by denying the most basic rights vital to leading a dignified life. Taken together, the migration of young Central Americans should come as no surprise. It is a policy-made crisis long in the making.
1. Under U.S. immigration law, a family unit “represents the number of individuals (either a child under 18 years old, parent, or legal guardian) apprehended with a family member by the U.S. Border Patrol.” “U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions,” 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/fy-2016.
2. Hernández 2014.
3. A bipartisan legislation under George W. Bush, the TVPRA permitted unaccompanied children from noncontiguous territories to reunite with parents or a sponsor while they pursue legal relief in immigration court. Public Law 106-386.
4. See galleries of http://www.youthcirculations.com for an analysis of images and materials about unaccompanied children from media and nonprofit organizations.
5. Heidbrink and Statz 2017.
6. Heidbrink 2014: 41–42.