Thirteen-year-old Stephanie Roman-Reyes can identify with the tens of thousands of refugee children in danger of deportation along the southern U.S. border.
Huddled beneath a tree in Lafayette Square with her infant sister and mother, the Queens, New York middle-school student began crying as she talked on Thursday about her father, whom authorities returned to Mexico three years earlier.
“For me, it’s tough not to have a dad by my side,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s really depressing. It impacts me because I see other, like, [children] with both of their parents. It hurts inside.”
Just across the street, beyond Roman-Reyes and the reach of a crowd singing church hymns and chanting “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”), U.S. Park Police arrested more than 100 faith leaders who marched from Lafayette to the White House on Thursday to demand relief and immigration reform from the Obama administration and a divided Congress.
Activists with several diverse faith and immigration organizations showed up in the hundreds to protest in Washington, determined to raise awareness about the plight of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central and South America and halt their deportations back to violence-ridden countries.
The day after the Lafayette protest, on Friday, the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a nearly $700-million bill on a partisan 223-189 vote that would expedite removal processes for child migrants, amp up detention facilities, and tap retired judges for backlogged cases.
The bill likely has little hope of passing the U.S. Senate, but that may be in part because it falls short of the $3.7 billion in aid that President Barack Obama requested to speed up repatriations back in July.
Why People are Fleeing
The word “crisis” may be an understatement when it comes to refugees on the southwest U.S. border.
Customs and Border Protection claims to have apprehended nearly 58,000 unaccompanied children below the age of 17 in 2014 — a 108 percent climb from last year. The number of apprehended families caught crossing the border also soared by almost 500 percent in 2014, with authorities on their way to processing another 55,000 — up from close to 9,000 in 2013. Most migrants are flocking to the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley regions in Texas, with minors largely in the latter.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found that the number of adult migrants seeking safety from violence skyrocketed from about 5,000 in 2009 to more than 36,000 in 2013. A little more than two-thirds of those surging north come from 4 countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
“This is a problem that’s been brewing for some time and conditions for people in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been terrible for a number of years,” said Louis Goodman, dean emeritus of American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C.NPR crowned Honduras the “murder capital of the world” after the same U.N. agency counted 90.4 deaths for every 100,000 nationals in the country.
Weak central governments, narcotics-fueled gang violence, and well-connected cartels reportedly help create environments in these countries that entrench denizens in poverty and help ensure impunity for perpetrators.
Their vulnerability makes children easy targets for organized crime and sexual assault, and experts say the escalation of violence in recent years is one of the primary drivers of an often-dangerous exodus through Mexico.
According to the UNHCR, roughly 58 percent of the unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras claimed a need for asylum in the United States in 2014. Just less than half of those said they feared returning because of the violence in their home countries.
“Organized crime has become more powerful so people feel their children are in danger,” said Goodman, who added that he’s also heard reports of gratuitous violence from contacts in the region. “If there’s any hope, people will try to escape these conditions.”
A House Divided—and Lacking Beds
With midterm elections approaching, the refugee crisis seems to be giving politicians plenty of fodder to accuse each other and muddy the waters about what’s fueling the mass migration.
In July, 35 House Republicans signed a letter to Obama that tied the crisis to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memorandum that broadened short-term protections and work eligibility for undocumented immigrants who entered the country at young ages through no fault of their own.
Signers described the law as one that “rewards families and individuals who have broken our laws” in the sense that it’s luring more child migrants, and moved with other House Republicans to clear another bill on Friday that Democrats will likely kill in the Senate.
The reality is that the surge began well before Obama authorized the 2012 program for executive agencies.
Laws do exist that give priority and care to certain unaccompanied minors who enter the country illegally, but it was then-President George W. Bush who inked his name to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA, expanding a law first approved in 2000. The law stays removals for immigrant children not from Canada or Mexico, emphasizes their humane treatment, and assigns them advocates while in federal custody.@RyanMarcSHHS counts only 10,000 or so for the 60,000 unaccompanied migrant children expected in 2014.
The push to change TVPRA isn’t entirely one-sided.
The New York Times reported in July that the Obama administration also wants some kind of rollback for the law so immigration authorities can hopefully hasten removals and ease pressure on temporary facilities overwhelmed by the needs of tens of thousands of apprehended migrants.
For example, when it comes to beds, Vox found the Department of Health and Human Services counts only 10,000 or so for the 60,000 unaccompanied migrant children the agency projects it will receive in 2014. A chunk of the $3.7 billion Obama is seeking would provide emergency assistance like temporary housing.
Anthony Quainton, a former ambassador to two Latin American countries and diplomat-in-residence at American University, chalked up backlogs associated with the 2008 law to “unintended consequences” and said it’s unlikely a stricken clause or two will lessen the influx anytime soon.
“The reality is the numbers are so large that immigration authorities won’t be able to get to these cases in any period of time,” he said.
Despite calls to overhaul or do away with TVPRA, polls find that most of the child migrants streaming north aren’t even aware that they might be eligible for preferential treatment under current law. Most of the 400-plus unaccompanied minors surveyed by UNHCR cited gang violence, sexual assault, and poverty when asked why they fled to the United States and a host of neighboring countries.
Most of the 400-plus unaccompanied minors ... cited gang violence, sexual assault, and poverty when asked why they fled to the United States...
This is partly what prompted Rev. Mari Castellanos, 66, to face arrest with more than 100 other faith leaders outside the White House on Thursday.
An immigrant herself, the United Church of Christ minister said she wanted the same “open arms” for undocumented migrants that she received when she escaped from Cuba in the 1960s.
“We’ve become one of the most successful migrations ever — because we were helped,” she said shortly before police arrested her. “What we received made it possible for us to succeed and become another wave of Americans.”
Roman-Reyes said she hoped Obama would take action to stop the deportations. Her infant sister, Sherley, played in the dirt as police continued cuffing and leading protesters onto the bus nearby.
“We’re not doing something wrong,” she said as her mother, an undocumented immigrant, hovered protectively by her side. “We’re trying to make a better future.”
Photo Credit: Ryan Schuette / IVN.us