The rapid rise in unaccompanied Central America children reaching the U.S. border has thrown the government into overdrive to figure out how to discourage the migration. Traffickers have spread misinformation about American immigration policy to persuade those already suffering from extreme violence and poverty – some desperate to join their families already in the north – that now is the time to risk the perilous journey and start a new life.
To counter this misinformation, the U.S. is trying to send a strong message to the region that the U.S. is not welcoming people with open arms. Top officials have traveled to Central America recently to sternly warn against sending children to the United States, and President Obama has underscored this message from Washington. They are also urging Central American leaders to take additional steps at home to stem the flow.
The U.S. is also trying to dissuade migration by increasing border enforcement and expediting the removal of children already in American custody. Increased enforcement is unlikely to have much impact since, rather than fleeing border officials, some children are specifically looking for them to turn themselves in believing, not without cause, that they will be released to a family member. But rather than release the children to family pending a hearing several months later, the Obama administration believes that most of the children have no legitimate claim to humanitarian protection by the United States, so the hearing and removal process can be expedited and thus discourage further migration.
For its part, the United Nations believes as many as 58 percent of the children may have a legitimate claim to some form of protection because they are fleeing a place of undeniable generalized violence. Deporting children back to conditions of extreme violence and where their government is unable to guarantee their safety will certainly mean death for some.
While discouraging the risky journey from Central America is important, U.S. efforts are unlikely to succeed long term since migratory patterns from Central America are well established and the worsening conditions on the ground make it likely that migrants will continue to risk the perilous journey to reunite with family regardless of what U.S. officials say or do. The so-called surge of unaccompanied children is really a trend that has been growing over the last few years and is the result of an accumulating set of factors that show no signs of improving, and that are independent from the messages high level U.S. officials want to send. More important is for the U.S. to focus on the longer term factor driving the migrations and investing in the kinds of violence prevention, community development, and anti-corruption efforts that will stabilize the region.