Doug Massey discusses the upswing in children crossing into the United States from Mexico, hoping to reconnect with family

Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Unaccompanied minors from Central America are traveling in droves to the United States, hoping to reconnect with family and escape the violence reverberating in their hometowns. This year alone, an estimated 60,000 children will attempt to cross the border into the United States, a number that has nearly tripled since 2011.

We spoke with Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, to discuss why there has been such a surge in children crossing the border, what this means and how the American government should react.

Q. Why are we seeing such a surge in children attempting to cross the border?

Wilson School Professor Douglas Massey discusses why there has been such a surge in children crossing the border, what this means and how the American government should react. The vast majority of these children are Central Americans, who are really the only people crossing the border at this point. Part of the reason the surge stands out so much is that undocumented migration from Mexico has reached a net rate of zero, and border apprehensions of Mexicans are at their lowest level since 1971. As recently as 2005, Mexican apprehensions stood at more than a million per year. With Mexican apprehensions way down, Central Americans stand out.

That said, the growth in child migration from that region reflects two circumstances: the violence and insecurity that have become endemic to El Salvador, Guatemala and especially Honduras, and the fact that so many children and parents are desperate to reunite after being separated for so long.

Prior to the 1990s, much of the migration from Mexico and Central America and undocumented parents returned home regularly to visit children left in the care of relatives. With the militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border, repeated border crossing has become costly and dangerous, and undocumented parents no longer circulate, prompting some parents to arrange entry for their children and some children to strike out for the north on their own. A third element is the perception that U.S. immigration authorities will treat children with more restraint and let them remain in the country longer and under better circumstances, perhaps even placing them with legal relatives in the United States. Given the scarcity of data, however, we do not know much about these children. Statistics on age, gender and family connections are generally not released.

Q. This issue has become politicized with some saying these young children are crossing the border to get away from the violence in Central America and others saying this is the result of Obama's loosened immigration policies. What's your take? Does either rationale have merit?

As noted above, both are likely true, but the fundamental drivers are insecurity at home and long-term separations from family in the United States. Ultimately, it is all blowback from the U.S. intervention in Central America during the Cold War in the 1980s, which destabilized the region politically and economically and initiated a rising tide of violence that continues to this day. Prior to 1980, migration from Central America to the United States was trivial and overwhelmingly legal. It surged in the 1980s as result of dislocations stemming from the Contra War, paramilitary operations, guerilla responses and rampant death squad activity. It subsided during the 1990s after the Peace Accords. What we see now is an echo of that emigration as family members left behind head northward to reunite and as the security situation has continued to deteriorate.

Q. How can these children benefit from crossing the border? And how might they suffer?

Crossing the border is dangerous, even for able-bodied adults, and Central Americans are especially vulnerable to being preyed upon by cartels and gangs in Mexico. Risks include kidnapping, sexual trafficking, forced participation in gang activities and death. Although the risks are not as extreme on the U.S. side, there will be few benefits unless the children are somehow able to reunite with family members north of the border. While media reports suggest these children are traveling alone and have nowhere to turn once they arrive, this is not entirely true. These children are traveling alone but, when they are apprehended, they are not likely to say they have parents or relatives in the United States because their relatives are undocumented and could be deported. It will be difficult for these children to reunite with their undocumented parents and, without legalization programs for them, their children cannot readily be placed.

Q. How might this impact the U.S. economy?

In the short term, the numbers are too small, and the children too young to have much of an economic impact on the economy. A far greater impact is likely to stem from the lost productivity of undocumented residents of the United States who entered as children and are still resident and the 300,000 or so U.S. citizen children in Mexico who have been compelled to return with their undocumented parents. Lacking Mexican birth certificates or identification papers, these children are undocumented in Mexico and have a difficult time registering for school, their social benefits are ostracized and they are excluded by other children because they cannot speak Spanish well and act more American than Mexican. As U.S. citizens, however, they will ultimately return to the United States to live and work, but many will come back as "damaged goods" lacking education in either English or Spanish and having been traumatized by involuntary exclusion from the country of their birth.

Q. What would you recommend as a course of action for the U.S. government in dealing with these kids? Should we be sending them back or trying to absorb them into the United States? If the latter, how?

The biggest barrier is the lack of a path to legalization for the 11-million unauthorized migrants currently living in the United States. Until they receive some kind of legal status in the United States, there is no realistic way to reunite them with their children. I would recommend granting an easy path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants who entered the country as minors and have no criminal record and would advocate a generous path to legal residence for those who entered as adults. Whether the latter ultimately choose to become citizens would be up to them, as it is for all permanent legal residents, who generally must wait five years, apply for naturalization, pay a fee and take tests before becoming U.S. citizens