NEW YORK — In all her years working with Unaccompanied Alien Children, one interaction in particular stands out for Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice for the Women’s Refugee Commission. She was interviewing a young boy from Central America (she no longer remembers the country). He had fled to the U.S. seeking asylum. She never forgot what he said during the interview. He looked at her and said, “In my country, it’s a crime to be young.”
“It’s a common refrain,” said Brané. “I’ve heard it over and over again.”
The number of UACs entering the United States has increased dramatically since 2011. Authorities apprehended more than 24,000 UACs at the southwest border from fall 2011 to fall 2012. That’s approaching twice as many as the approximately 15,000 during the same time period from 2010 to 2011, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
These children are predominantly from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico; countries that suffer from increasing rates of cartel and gang violence. They are fleeing this violence, and in some cases, violence perpetrated by their own governments, Brané said. For others it’s for economic reasons, or because of domestic violence. For many, it’s all of the above, she said.
“We’ve seen consistently increasing crime rates in those countries. That matches up, interestingly enough, with who’s coming from where,” Brané said.
She added that the number of girls crossing is steadily increasing, even though the vast majority of these children are male.
All arrive without their parents. Some were sent ahead of their families. They and their parents decided the risk of staying at home outweighed the risk of the journey north. Others were sent for by parents who had made the migration first.
About 60 percent of UACs are handed over to their parents or a guardian in the U.S. after they turn themselves over to immigration authorities after crossing the border. They can stay with family, go to school and live relatively normal lives while waiting for an immigration hearing.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. government approached UACs with a three-tiered approach, Brané said. First, they tried to improve the situations in the children’s home countries. Second, they tried to fix overburdened system processing the asylum claims. Finally, they tried to deter migration.
The number of unaccompanied children coming into the U.S. could decrease in the short term due to an expected crackdown by the Donald J. Trump administration. But the numbers will remain high in the long term if violence and poverty remain rampant in their home countries, according to Brané.
“People are not going to sit in a burning house just because you locked the front door,” she said.