Tragic images of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are flooding the airwaves, begging a humanitarian response, as well as hard questions. Why are these children coming here? Why now and why in such large numbers?
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, approximately 57,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States since the 2014 fiscal year began in October—twice the number apprehended in 2013 and three times the 2011 total.
These children, desperate and afraid, are fleeing their homes to avoid violence at the hands of the deadly street gangs that dominate their countries. At risk in their home countries, children are commonly targeted and intimidated into forced-participation by gangs. If they try to resist, they risk death and the deaths of their family. The only choice many of these kids have is to flee to neighboring countries in the hope of living with dignity and safety. The stories of their journeys are full of danger and desperation.
The Holy Father drew attention to the tens of thousands of children migrating alone in a July 15 statement: “This is a category of migrants from Central America and Mexico itself who cross the border with the United States under extreme conditions and in pursuit of a hope that in most cases turns out to be vain,” he said. “They are increasing day by day. This humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.”
The United States is not alone in receiving these refugee children. In fact, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) neighboring countries such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama have seen an increase of almost 700% in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.
Advocates from the CLINIC network, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Charities USA,
and others gathered in Washington, D.C. last week for the 2014 National Migration Conference to discuss this and other issues affecting migrants.
The plight of unaccompanied minors was understandably at the forefront of the conference.
“The prospect of the United States sending vulnerable children back into the hands of violent criminals in their countries raises troubling questions about our moral character," Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, said.
CLINIC affiliates and other faith-based charities are stepping up to assist people in need as this humanitarian crisis continues. Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, for example, is operating a shelter where an average of 174 people arrive every day.
CLINIC will continue to provide training and tools to build the capacity of charitable legal immigration programs during this time of great need, as well as advocate for protections for these vulnerable children.
For more information and access to Catholic resources concerning unaccompanied minors visit USCCB at http://www.usccb.org/about/children-and-migration/unaccompanied-refugee-minor-program/index.cfm
Abigail Marshall is an intern with CLINIC’s Communications section.