U.S. border control authorities have apprehended 52,000 unaccompanied children attempting to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico just in the nine months since October, 2013, a dramatic spike at the southwest border that has created a major political and humanitarian crisis. About three-fourths of the children came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, driven by violence and poverty and the desperation of parents who make the wrenching decision that it’s better to send them away on their own than keep them at home.

The flight of children – arriving hungry, thirsty and frightened – is part of a larger surge of people fleeing violence in the three Central American countries. It’s not just the United States that is feeling the effects. The United Nations refugee agency reports that neighbouring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have seen a more than four-fold increase in the number of asylum applications from Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans of all ages in the last five years.

The influx has strained the immigration and detention system beyond its capacity, leading President Barack Obama this week to seek nearly $4-billion (U.S.) to help house, process, represent and care for the new undocumented migrants, and to help their home countries alleviate the poverty and crime that are driving forces behind the movement of people. But Mr. Obama faces the same hostile and intransigent Congress that has blocked, for most of his presidency, nearly all of his initiatives including immigration reform. Republican politicians, looking to midterm elections in the fall and further ahead to the 2016 presidential elections, have united in blaming him for the crisis and vowed they will not give him a “blank cheque.”

What’s behind the wave of unaccompanied children coming from Central America?

Violence – related to gang warfare and the drug trade – is considered a big motivating factor. The spike in children leaving their home countries corresponds to a spike in homicides beginning in 2011 in the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Honduran children, for example, are taking the brunt of increased gang violence. Last month alone, 32 children under the age of 18 were murdered in Honduras, bringing to 409 the number of children killed since January, according to data compiled by a youth shelter in Tegucigalpa and reported by The New York Times. As one Honduran mother told the newspaper: “The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States. That’s the idea, to leave.”

Researchers for the UN and nonprofit groups have consistently found that Central American children cited gang crime, violence and insecurity as the principle reasons they left. Another factor that is often mentioned is the belief, based on rumour and misunderstanding of U.S. laws, that children arriving alone will be allowed to stay if they have relatives living in the United States. Critics of Mr. Obama say his decision to stop deporting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children, as part of the Dream Act that allows these young people to apply for legal residence, fed these rumours in Central America.

What is happening to the children and other migrants once they are caught at the U.S. border?

Under a 2008 law that was aimed at protecting children from sex traffickers, unaccompanied minors who enter the U.S. illegally from any country other than Mexico and Canada cannot be immediately deported. They must be given the chance to have a representative and a hearing before an immigration court. The process, given the resources available, can take three years. While they are waiting, the children are also supposed to be placed in protective custody in “the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” including with family members already in the United States. Some 90 per cent of the children who arrived without their parents in recent years have been reunited with relatives as they waited for their cases to be adjudicated.

But with the flood of Central American children, the system for handling undocumented migrants of all ages is buckling. Already there is a backlog of 367,000 cases at the country’s 59 immigration courts. Mr. Obama’s requested emergency financing includes $45-million for additional teams of immigration judges and $15-million to provide legal representation for children. Still, the immediate needs are overwhelming. A shortage of housing has meant that many children caught at the Mexico-U.S. border are being sent all over the country to places that can care for them: to shelters at three military bases, where dormitories have been spruced up with flowered bedspreads; to detention centres and immigration courts as far away as New York City; and to makeshift shelters in warehouses and other buildings. In some communities, the arrival of busloads of migrants from the overcrowded border stations has set off anti-immigrant protests.

Given the magnitude of the problem, will there be a political solution in Washington?

The Obama administration says the government needs more flexibility than is provided in that 2008 law so that deportations can be carried out more quickly, and it is pushing for congressional action on the emergency funding request. But immigration is too politically volatile an issue to expect much co-operation in Washington.

House Speaker John Boehner – who has refused to bring a bipartisan immigration reform bill to the House floor for a vote – signalled on Thursday that he might support the President on speedier deportations of Central American children, but also that he doesn’t want Mr. Obama to get the credit. It’s a “crisis of the President’s own making” for giving children and their families “false hope” that if they came to the U.S. illegally they’d be allowed to stay, he told reporters. “I can tell you this, we’re not giving the President a blank cheque.” And Arizona Senator John McCain has said he wants the 2008 law repealed to send a message to the parents of children sent north. “The only thing that’s going to stop these children from coming is if their parents see planeloads of them coming back to the country of origin,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Texas on Wednesday sums up the difficulties of finding common ground on immigration even when border controls and the welfare of children are at stake. Mr. Obama met Texas Governor Rick Perry, a fierce critic of the President’s immigration policy and a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. Even arranging their 15-minute talk was politically fraught, as Mr. Perry initially said he wouldn’t meet the President at all. On Thursday, he attacked Mr. Obama for not sending the National Guard to the border. And Mr. Obama’s failure to visit the processing centres at the border during his trip to the Southwest for fundraising events left him open to criticism from all sides. He responded to the grumbling by saying he wasn’t interested in “photo ops,” and attempted to take the offensive. “If they’re interested in solving the problem, then this can be solved,” he said. “If the preference is for politics, then it won’t be solved.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jul. 11 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Jul. 11 2014, 6:00 AM EDT