Recently a national spotlight has turned to the humanitarian needs of children at our border. In regard to the high number of children fleeing violence in Central America, opposition to these children coming to the United States and seeking asylum has too often turned ugly. In Murrieta, CA, for example, more than 100 protestors blocked children from entering the town’s border processing center. During the weekend of July 19-20, anti-immigrant activists staged approximately 300 protests around the country.
The anti-immigrant movement has seized this opportunity to spread rhetoric that dehumanizes and demonizes these children. Among the most common tropes are allegations that the children are bringing disease and gang violence. Recently mainstream politicians and public figures, including several members of Congress, have been spreading anti-immigrant rhetoric, alleging that the children are bringing a culture of violence with them and calling for the children to be “quarantined.”
According to U.S. Border Patrol, 57,525 unaccompanied minors (children traveling without parents or family members) were apprehended on the southern border between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. At the end of June, Border Patrol predicted that it might apprehend a total of 90,000 children on the southern border in FY 2014 (which began September 2013 and ends September 30, 2014), but it has since reported decreasing numbers each week. Still, many more children have arrived in FY 2014 than in past years. In FY 2011, for example, Border Patrol apprehended approximately 16,000 unaccompanied minors.
Three quarters of the children who have recently arrived in the United States are from three countries in Central America known as the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It is important to note that the United States is not the only country seeing an increase in children seeking refuge from the Northern Triangle. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have all seen a 435 percent increase in asylum applications from these countries. This indicates that the children are fleeing their countries, not simply seeking entry into the United States.
While there can be many reasons for children to enter the United States, including family reunification and poverty in their home countries, children fleeing the Northern Triangle consistently cite gang and cartel-related violence as their primary reason for undertaking the long and dangerous journey. According to 2012 data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras has a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. In El Salvador the rate is 41.2 and in Guatemala it is 39.9. To put that in perspective, the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, from which nearly half a million refugees have fled in recent years, has a homicide rate of 28.3 per 100,000.
Youth are frequently particular targets of violence. Gangs in the Northern Triangle begin recruiting members in adolescence or younger, and they often threaten children and their families if they refuse to join. In addition, many youth report beatings by police who suspect them of gang membership. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that approximately 60 percent of the unaccompanied minors would qualify for humanitarian protection under international standards.
Regulations from the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 dictate that, when dealing with children other than from Mexico or Canada, Border Patrol must take the children into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Settlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS, in turn, is charged with finding a suitable relative with whom the child can be placed while awaiting an immigration hearing, or placing the child in long-term foster care. At one point, HHS was dealing with over six times as many children as they had available beds.
The federal government has been seeking suitable placements for the children around the country, which has spurred anti-immigrant protests in towns including Murrieta, CA; Fontana, CA; Vassar, MI; Long Island, NY and Oracle, AZ.
Local anti-immigrant activists have spearheaded protests against the attempts by the federal government to process the children at various locations around the country. In Murrieta, California activists prevented buses carrying the children from entering their town. In Vassar, Michigan, protesters carried handguns and rifles during a rally against housing some of the children in their town. During the weekend of July 18-19, anti-immigrant activists helped to organize hundreds of small rallies around the country in an event called “National Day of Protesting Against Immigration Reform, Amnesty & Border Surge.” Despite the low turnout at the rallies, many attendees held up signs that demonized and dehumanized the children fleeing violence in Central America. The signs referred to the crisis at the border as an “invasion” and asserted that children crossing the border carried diseases. At a rally in New York City, one person held a sign implying that “illegals” were “cockroaches.”
In addition to the anti-immigrant rhetoric from activists, there have been a number of politicians and public figures who have demonized the children by linking them to diseases and crime.