The number of unaccompanied minors fleeing three Central American countries and crossing the U.S. border will jump from an estimated 4,000 in 2011 to an expected 60,000 by the end of this year.
The surge is fueled in part by social media, misinformation about U.S. law and conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
If you're a kid from Mexicali or Toronto and you're caught crossing the U.S. border, you'll get a speedy trip home. Not so, if you're from somewhere else. Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute says a 2008 law meant to combat sex trafficking — the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — requires that unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries receive a full immigration hearing.
"Currently the hearing time for those hearings is two to three years," he says. The law also requires the Department of Homeland Security 72 hours to house those unaccompanied minors in the "least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child." That means undocumented children are housed with either foster parents or the child's relatives living in the U.S. until their immigration hearing.
There are strong family ties between the U.S. and Central America. Just like families across America, Salvadorans stay in touch with Skype and Facebook. Nicholas Phillips, a journalist who writes for The New York Times from Central America, says these and other social media helped misinformation about the law spread quickly. The message became: cross the border and you'll be reunited with your mom and if you make it, you "can stick around."
Missing from that message was the fact that the reunion is likely temporary. A study by Syracuse University shows that fewer than half of those requesting it are granted asylum by the courts.
Conditions at home
Legal loopholes and social media aren't the only reasons for the recent surge. Violence is an indirect cause, according to Julie Lopez, a Wilson Center collaborator who covers Central American criminal networks. She says a 2011 study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed that three out of four said family reunification was the reason for unaccompanied minors coming to the United States. Four in ten cited violence in their home countries.
Lopez says Guatemala saw a decrease in violence in 2010, but an increase in the past two years. She says increasing poverty is also a factor. Many are fleeing crime-stricken communities that are also the "poorest in the country."
Phillips says a March 2012 gang truce in El Salvador slowed the number of homicides, though intimidation has continued. But the violence has steadily increased this year, he says, due to gang wars with the police.
President Obama is asking Congress for $2 billion to deal with the influx, including “an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers."
Rosenblum says faster screening and repatriation would counter the message that "if you get to the border, you're going to get placed with your family and you're going to get to stay here indefinitely."