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Migration pawns: Unaccompanied children

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What to do about unaccompanied migrant children? That seemingly simple question, which many countries face worldwide, is now challenging America, where a surge of unaccompanied migrant children is happening with no signs of it subsiding anytime soon. 

Most adults and families are currently being turned away at the U.S.- Mexico border. However, the Biden administration has exempted unaccompanied migrants under 18 years old — other than from Mexico and Canada — permitting them to stay in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated. That legal process typically takes no less than several years due to the ballooning backlog of cases. 

Every day more than 500 unaccompanied minors, including teenagers under age 18 years and younger children, are arriving at the U.S. southern border. Nearly 30,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border by the end of February, which is nearly as high as the number for the entire year of 2020 and is five times higher than the nearly 6,000 in January.

More than 15,000 unaccompanied children are now in custody in the U.S., nearly twice the previous record, taxing border stations and overwhelming detention facilities. The unaccompanied children are spending 136 hours on average in custody of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), nearly double the legal 72-hour limit.

Most of those children are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Their migration is largely due to poverty, food insecurity, family reunification, natural disasters and the ongoing violence in those countries. 

The migration surge at the U.S.-Mexico border is believed to be the worst the situation has been in 20 years. Consistent with current U.S. laws, efforts are being made to quickly move unaccompanied migrant children into sponsor homes or Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities that provide them access to health, legal and educational services.  

Some of the migrant families are choosing to send their children alone because they see it as the best chance for gaining entry into the U.S. and being reunited with family members already in the country. The recently approved House bill granting a legal path to citizenship to an estimated 3.6 million undocumented migrants, including those brought as children, has not gone unnoticed by migrant families with children and smugglers as well as many others wishing to migrate to the U.S.

A diverse range of policies have been offered to address the challenging question of unaccompanied migrant children. At one extreme, some argue that irrespective of age, those crossing the border illegally should be returned promptly to their home countries or back to the country where they last crossed. This is basically the current practice in a number of countries, including Austria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary,  Israel and Poland.

At the other extreme, some argue that there is no choice but to admit the unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally. To do otherwise, they maintain, would be inhumane and violate basic ethical principles for dealing with unaccompanied migrant children, and underlies the policies of many countries, including Australia, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland

In between those two extremes are various other views and recommended policies to address the growing phenomenon of unaccompanied migrant children. For example, some believe the arriving children should be the responsibility of the authorities of the last country they crossed, which for the U.S. is typically Mexico. 

Others consider admitting unaccompanied migrant children into the country constitutes an unwise policy because it basically creates open borders for children. Such a policy, they maintain, sends the wrong message to families, smugglers and traffickers, incentivizing the practice and transforming unaccompanied children into migration pawns. 

In addition to sending the wrong migration message, it is increasingly being recognized that the asylum system is out of control. Rather than fleeing due to religious, ethnic and political persecution, as was the recognized case following World War II, the large majority of those now attempting to enter America’s southern border are actually migrants fleeing poverty, unemployment, violence and hardships.

In addition to the personal consequences for migrants and their families, migration policies have important political repercussions. The Democrats, seeking to retain their control of Congress in 2022, are now forced to defend the administration’s handling of the migration crisis while advancing their immigration overhaul bill.  

In contrast, the Republicans are highlighting the migration crisis in order to derail the administration’s current attempts for immigration reform, including granting legal status and a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized migrants. They also believe emphasizing the administration’s border crisis increases their chances of regaining control of Congress.  

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the Congressional debate on immigration reform, especially given the current escalating crisis situation along the southern border. However, a number of things seem clear.

First, the migration surge, particularly of unaccompanied children, is unlikely to subside any time soon. In fact, with the coming warmer weather, the numbers of unaccompanied children as well as families arriving at America’s southern border can be expected to increase markedly.

Second, given current migration policies, unaccompanied children are likely to continue being utilized as migration pawns. Parents, smugglers and others believe unaccompanied migrant children will be permitted to enter and remain in America, eventually obtaining legal status and citizenship.

Third, powerful push and pull migration forces are overwhelming government policies, programs and facilities. Those forces are quite formidable and will continue to exert enormous pressures on men, women and children to leave their homes and migrate to America.

Fourth, America’s immigration policy remains a contentious political issue in Congress and among the American public. Not only will it impact the upcoming Congressional elections in 2022, but immigration will surely be a major political issue in the 2024 presidential election.   

Finally, America’s policy on unaccompanied migrant children is not simply a domestic matter. How the country deals with unaccompanied children arriving at its border has far-reaching foreign policy consequences and serious implications for America’s relations with other countries and international organizations.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters“.  

Tags Biden immigration policy child trafficking Dreamers Illegal immigration Immigration smugglers unaccompanied children Unaccompanied minor US-Mexico Border

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