Responding to the Unaccompanied Minor Crisis

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece describing the violent situation facing children in Nueva Suyapa, a neighborhood located in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The author documents murders in the street, recruiting by drug gangs in schools, death threats, and virtual imprisonment in the home. The article moved me powerfully, almost to tears. Having lived in Nueva Suyapa for two years, I am persuaded that we must offer protections to the Central American children flowing over the U.S. border as they flee life-threatening situations. 

Other sources also suggest that the influx of minors arriving at U.S. borders stems from humanitarian need. A report from the United Nations revealed that 58% of these children cited violence as the preeminent reason for their departure, and others working closely on the crisis conclude that between 40-60% of these minors have legitimate humanitarian claims that would legally allow them to stay in the U.S. under U.S. and international law.

Alongside these genuine “push” factors for making the dangerous trek north, “pull” factors have reinforced the recent surge in child migration. Credible reports cite rumors in Central America suggesting that children need merely to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in order to receive a free pass to stay in the United States. Notably, a 2-3 year backlog exists in immigration proceedings for many of the youth that have managed to reach the U.S. While they wait for their case to be heard, youth are placed in the “least restrictive” setting possible—which in many cases means that minors end up with family in the U.S. 

In light of the complex nature of this crisis, how should the demands of justice inform the U.S. government response?

First, a priority must be placed on listening to and respecting legitimate humanitarian claims. In many cases, it has been unequivocally established that life and death may be at stake. Sadly, the U.S. is ill equipped to respond to these needs. Lawyers are lacking, and judges are overwhelmed by the number of cases. The protection of human life is one of government’s most basic functions. Despite the undocumented status of these children, the U.S. government cannot shy away from its obligation to protect the human lives crossing the border. 

This means that first and foremost, increased resources must be directed towards providing legal representation for minors in deportation hearings. While not a right in immigrant proceedings, the presence of a lawyer can help to ensure that claims based on legitimate humanitarian concerns are given due consideration. 

Second, the question of border enforcement must be carefully addressed. Continued deportations of those without family ties to the U.S. and without legitimate humanitarian claims will help to clarify the message for Central Americans desiring to come to the U.S., while also leaving open the possibility for more comprehensive immigration reform. But drastically expanding the Border Patrol’s capacity to detain individuals at the border makes little sense in the current crisis. Over the past decade, both the Border Patrol’s manpower and budget have doubled, while the number of immigrants detained on the border has plummeted, due in part to the economic recession and increasing dangers associated with the travel. Thus, Border Patrol agents are likely already catching everyone they can. The fact that many minors simply turn themselves in to the authorities underscores the fact more boots would simply misdirect limited resources. 

Third, U.S. policy should seek to strengthen Central American governments’ ability to ensure justice for their own citizens by emphasizing the security and economic well being of their citizens. These policies must take into account the corruption and serious human rights concerns associated with Central American security forces and governments, and will also help to respond to the needs that many deported by the U.S. often face. 

Finally, the U.S. government should seek to further public justice by encouraging the work of those NGO’s that focus on these issues, recognizing its own limitations. Organizations in the U.S. supplying pro-bono lawyers to minors in legal proceedings present an opportunity to support needed representation, while NGO’s like the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras offer unique and effective ways to combat the crime and corruption that often forces Hondurans to leave. This is true even in Nueva Suyapa, where faithful Christians have managed to drastically reduce the violence.

In our globalized world, a government’s mandate to uphold justice may at times extend beyond on its borders, especially for a global power such as the United States. The current crisis, marked by the influx of impoverished and threatened minors in neighboring countries stricken by violence, provides a difficult, yet important example of the U.S.’s moral responsibility to protect an especially vulnerable population that does not benefit from the same legal and economic benefits as U.S. citizens.

- Aaron Korthuis is a first year student at Yale Law School. He previously worked in Honduras for two years with the Association for a More Just Society on matters of security reform.