Two migration experts have said that many unaccompanied child immigrants to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America could qualify as refugees fleeing violence, and thus be granted asylum.
Rick Jones, a Catholic Relief Services official who has lived in Central America for 27 years, told CNA the “epidemic of violence” in the region is behind the massive spike of migrants from those countries.
“If this were a declared war, you would consider them refugees. And the homicide rates in Central America fit the definition of war.”
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo Almaguer, an auxiliary of the Seattle archdiocese and head of the U.S. bishops’ immigration committee, recently called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” that demands a “comprehensive response” from the U.S. government.
The number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. has steadily risen and has doubled each year since 2011, according to Jones.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said that “absolutely” some of those migrants could qualify for asylum.
“In terms of asylum, you only have to establish credible fear,” he told CNA. “That’s part of the asylum policy that we have in the country: those who are fleeing violent countries can find protection here.”
He added that not only children, but adults as well, are fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico. “It also may be happening with adults that are fleeing violence from Mexico, that are being targeted by cartels. So yes, absolutely, some of them could” qualify as refugees.
Jones is CRS' deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. He told CNA that violence in Central America has reached the level of “epidemic” by World Health Organization standards, with the homicide rate in Honduras at 92 per 100,000 people. By contrast, the homicide rate in the U.S. is less than 5 per 100,000.
The violence in Central America is primarily drug-related, with gangs also playing a big part.
“We have to realize that Central America lies between Columbia and Mexico, and the drug-related violence is a huge part of it. The second big factor is gang presence,” Jones said. “In all these communities and urban neighborhoods, even now in some smaller towns, gangs have a presence. They’re in schools. And families just don’t know what to do.”
Because of violence and poverty at home, migrants are left with “no alternative.”
“Everybody knows, and people here know, that going into Mexico (to reach the U.S.) is an incredibly risky thing to do. They wouldn’t do that just on some executive order. I think they’re doing it because they feel here at home, they have no other alternative.”
Both experts agreed that the U.S. must work with the countries to foster economic opportunity and curb violence there.
“This is a failure of foreign policy of the president of the United States forgetting about Latin America,” said Aguilar, a former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Citizenship.
“I think that we should be more aggressive in building trade relationships with these countries to improve their economies, but also work in helping them in their security policy by having a stronger partnership,” he continued.
Jones noted: “people have the right to migrate, as well as the right not to migrate. And there needs to be a lot more resources invested here in Central America and in Mexico to foster economic development and job opportunity as well as to address the issues of violence here, because otherwise people are going to keep coming.”
Jones described some programs specifically designed to address the root problems of gang violence in the region. He cited programs to build strong families, gang intervention programs, and prison reform as part of the solution.
One program in particular is called “Youth Builders.” Jones said that “we’ve been able to get over 80 percent of the kids here to go back to school: they get a job, or they start a microenterprise, a small business. And those are the kinds of positive things that we need to do. So in a sense, we need to replace the negative behaviors around violence with something positive like assuming responsibility and being able to get a job.”
Aguilar maintained that the U.S. needs to adopt a “workable immigration policy,” most notably a market-based guest-worker program by which workers could return to their home country, re-unite with their families, and then re-enter the U.S. Many child migrants are coming to the U.S. not just to flee violence but to re-unite with their parents, he noted.
“And if we had a sensible immigration policy where those parents could return to Mexico or Central America to be with their kids and then re-enter legally, that circle of immigration I’m talking about them having, it’s really not part of the discussion. By having this dysfunctional system, we’re encouraging illegality.”
Jones said “any kind of guest-worker policy” would be welcomed, “because it’s at least better than the situation which exists now. Which is nothing.”
He insisted on comprehensive immigration reform to re-unite children with their parents: the backlog for children to immigrate legally is over ten years, and the children are adults by the time they can legally re-unite with their parents.
“So their parents have missed their entire childhood. And they’re being raised by their grandparents, aunts and uncles, or neighbors here in the country of origin."