Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

BPC Panel Analyzes the Child Migration Crisis

By Matt Graham

Monday, August 4, 2014

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Melysa Barth contributed to this post.

For more details and the full discussion, view the event video here. To learn more about unaccompanied child migration, please see our by-the-numbers issue brief, read our primer on current law, and see our summary of deportation and outcomes data.

On July 30, 2014, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted an event with two panels of experts focusing on the child migration crisis at the southern border. The first panel featured former Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) David. V. Aguilar, Director of Migrant Rights & Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission Michelle Brané, and former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff. The second featured former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Pete Romero, and Senior Protection Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Leslie E. Veléz.

Both panels touched on a wide range of themes. Based on their expertise, the first panel focused on the domestic response to the current situation, while the second panel more closely examined the root causes in the sending countries and what can be done to improve them. Key themes included:

Security in Sending Countries

The causes of any migration flow fall into two general categories: (1) push factors, or what motivates people to leave home, and (2) pull factors, or what makes the destination country attractive. Panelists emphasized different factors. Brané and Veléz emphasized the key push factor: violence and insecurity in the sending countries, due largely to the growing prominence of transnational gangs. Both panelists highlighted a recent UNHCR report, “Children on the Run,” which found that 58 percent of children migrating from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico raised an international protection concern. The two also pointed out that countries all over the region have seen an increase in the number of asylum applications, not just the United States.

Other panelists also touched on the security situation in the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). In particular, Noriega spoke of America’s “shared responsibility” for the violence in the three countries. Noriega noted that the United States has repatriated 125,000 criminals to the Northern Triangle since 2000, a practice commonly cited as a principal cause of the three nations’ gang problems. According to Noriega, these criminal organizations create insecurity because they “have the capacity to outgun, undermine, or intimidate” government security forces in the sending countries.

Migrant Perceptions of U.S. Policy

Aguilar and Chertoff, who dealt with an analogous influx of Central American adults during their respective terms as Border Patrol Chief and Homeland Security Secretary under President Bush, placed more emphasis on pull factors that may attract children and families to the United States. Both explained that, due primarily to a backlog in processing cases, a perception exists in the sending countries that children and families arriving in the United States will be allowed to stay. Chertoff explained, “you can have due process that can last for years, and the reality is, that looks an awful lot like a permiso—like you’re going get the ability to stay here. And that is exactly what you don’t want to do. You don’t want to encourage people to think if they can survive the trip, they’re going to effectively get an amnesty” (36:40).

The panelists disagreed about the extent of migrants’ knowledge of U.S. policy and prospects for remaining in the United States. Veléz noted that during her organization’s interviews with child migrants, less than one percent indicated that knowledge of the U.S. immigration system played a role in their migration decision. Other panelists suggested that even if children do not know, smugglers and parents funding the trip are likely to know. Aguilar explained that many migrants do not even try to evade detection: “I use the term encountering because these folks are turning themselves in. They are not trying to evade our people, they are turning themselves in because the smugglers are directing them to the Border Patrol” (19:25).

Processing Migrants Quickly

Much of the discussion revolved around the way the United States handles apprehended children: the speed of the process, the adequacy of protections, and the capacity of Border Patrol, Health and Human Services, and the nation’s immigration courts. The panelists all agreed that more resources should be allocated to process children. Chertoff compared the current situation to the circumstances he encountered upon taking office as DHS Secretary in 2005. At that time, a lack of detention space lead to a policy known as “catch and release,” wherein apprehended individuals were given a notice to appear in immigration court and released into the interior of the United States. According to Chertoff, DHS cut processing times by about two-thirds, which reduced the need to release immigrants. Chertoff opined that “if we are consistent about being able to humanely but efficiently process people and send back those that need to go back, we will begin to counteract the message that is drawing people up” (17:45)

Asylum and Humanitarian Obligations

Though in agreement that migrants should be processed more quickly, Brané and Veléz cautioned that the solution is not to close borders or deny migrants access to humanitarian relief. Both described the United States as an example for the rest of the world, warning that that restrictions on access to asylum and other forms of relief could lead other regional and international actors to do the same. Veléz pointed out that Lebanon, a country of just 4 million people, currently hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees. Brané mentioned reports that existing U.S. protections for Mexican children are inadequate, and Veléz discussed Mexico’s efforts to improve its capacity to process individuals for humanitarian relief. Near the conclusion of the second panel, Veléz summarized the challenge of balancing quick processing with humanitarian obligations: “What’s very clear is that they may not all be refugees, and they may not all qualify for protection in the U.S., or protection in Mexico, or protection in Nicaragua. But the trick in all of this is being able to identify those individuals who have expressed some kind of fear of serious harm, and allowing them access to [humanitarian relief], and making sure those systems run” (1:22:30).

Assistance and Cooperation with Sending Countries

Each of the six panelists agreed that an effective response will require assistance to and cooperation with other regional actors, particularly Mexico and the three Northern Triangle countries. Romero cited a need to help these countries strengthen their own borders, as well as to strengthen cooperation and intelligence-sharing between countries along the route from Central America to the United States. Noriega spoke in depth about the role that weak institutions play in creating the security situations that cause so many people to leave, describing issues with the rule of law, police force competence and corruption, and well-functioning justice systems. He proposed several potential solutions, including (1) economic assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank, (2) forming an international task force to sanction individuals identified in criminality, and (3) a United Nations mission to help professionalize police forces. Related to the third point, Romero suggested attaching U.S. law enforcement with anti-gang experience to U.S. embassies in Central America to advise and train police forces in those countries.

American Diplomacy

Both former Assistant Secretaries emphasized the role that U.S. diplomacy can play in encouraging Northern Triangle governments to combat transnational gangs and their human smuggling operations. Noriega and Romero each described problems with corruption and the often close relationships between Central American governments and criminal organizations, which sometimes extend all the way to the leaders of the countries. Romero advised that after “40 years of inertia in the wrong direction,” “you can’t go unilaterally or bilaterally to these governments and expect them to do the right thing” (54:00). Instead, he said that the Obama Administration “needs to get muscular on this issue.” According to Romero, “If people can find where the buses and the coyotes leaving for the United States are, certainly those governments know where they are, and certainly they can shut them down, but they won’t do it unless there is intense pressure placed upon them by the United States” (1:18:05).

Melysa Barth serves as an intern with BPC’s Immigration Task Force.