As of June 20, Mr. Chairman US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have apprehended 52,000 in the Southwest Border region for FY 2014.12 In response to the increased number of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border, HHS requested and received approval from the Department of Defense for the use of Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio and a Naval Base in Ventura County in California, which are, respectively, providing shelter to 1,290 and 600 children.
Facilities at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, also will house 600 unaccompanied children.13 The federal government is currently looking at other housing facilities throughout the United States.
With the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border, we must understand who these children are, what is propelling them to travel alone on an increasingly dangerous journey, and what can be done to best address their welfare.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to share the stories of three children—one from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—to give the committee a sense of the reality of the violence they are fleeing:
Marta,* age 16, was born and raised in El Salvador, where she lived with her mother, father, brother and sister until just a few months ago. Currently, Marta is in a secure juvenile facility in the United States because she entered the U.S. without status.
Marta reports having a very happy childhood, being involved with her church and that she is very close to all her family members. Now she is separated from everyone she knows in the world, because she had to flee for her life.
One day back home, Marta witnessed a fellow student’s death as he was shot in the back by the gangs on his way home from school. Then the threats against Marta began. Members of the La Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang have repeatedly tried to recruit Marta to assist them in their criminal activities and have threatened to kill her and her family. Marta has been beaten, and threatened with a machete by gang members. At one point, the police intervened by relocating Marta’s family to the countryside, but the gang still located Marta.
Few community members are willing to assist her family out of fear of the gang. Marta’s choice was to flee the country, join the criminal gang, or possibly be killed. After being in hiding for months, Marta’s mother sent her to the U.S., to save her daughter’s life. The family continues to be in hiding in El Salvador.
Marta cries repeatedly out of fear for her family’s safety and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Marta is applying for asylum in the U.S. and has been approved to transfer to a foster care setting while she navigates immigration proceedings with the aid of a pro-bono attorney.
Ana,* age 15, grew up in Totonicapán, Guatemala, living with her biological parents and nine siblings. In an average day, Ana woke up at 5:00 AM to clean the house, and then sewed dresses until 9:00 PM, at which time she would fix dinner for her family and go to bed. Prior to migrating to the U.S., Ana had completed fifth grade before her father decided that her time would be better spent working. The impetus for her migration was the severe physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who was unable to sustain steady employment and suffered from alcohol abuse. In June of 2013, Ana’s mother secretly arranged for her to travel to the United States in hopes of reunifying with her 30 year-old sister in Houston, Texas. She travelled mostly by car, stopping to sleep in basements and warehouses on her way through Mexico.
Once near the northern border of Mexico, she spent three nights in a trailer while the guide waited on other members of the group to arrive. Ana was given little water and nothing to eat while waiting in the trailer. On the third night in the trailer, the guide attempted to rape Ana, but another traveler pulled him away. The next day, after crossing into Texas, the guide again tried to rape her but his efforts were once again thwarted. Angry at her rejection, the guide abandoned Ana in the middle of the desert and returned to Mexico. Ana continued to walk until she found a farm and was subsequently apprehended by Border Patrol.
Maria* is a 16-year-old girl from Honduras who arrived to the US and was placed in ORR custody in July 2013. She was referred for home study due to having been the victim of sexual abuse at the age of 13. While in Honduras, she had suffered additional abuse that began with harassment in her country of origin by La Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) Gang. Maria was pursued, brutalized and attempts at recruiting her culminated into the brutal beating of her mother and other family members, constant threats of kidnapping, and an eventual kidnapping by MS-13 gang members.
Eventually Maria sought assistance and tried to get out of her confinement and recruitment by the gang. She finally devised a plan to escape, and under the ruse of going “shopping”, the child arranged to escape to her sister’s house.
However, when the gang realized that the child had escaped, they surrounded the home to which she fled. Local authorities eventually secured Maria, debriefed her, and helped her relocate to protective custody in another part of the country.
The child’s mother insisted that she be moved to the care of a family member (aunt) in a nearby city in Honduras, but this only lasted a short time, since gang members found out this location and pursued and harassed Maria at this location as well. Since this incident, Maria has not had any contact or involvement with this gang, and eventually fled to the United States for fear she would be killed. Maria is currently being cared for by a foster-care family and awaits her court date.
IV. Factors Pushing Unaccompanied Children to the U.S. Border
In our delegation to Central America in November 2013, USCCB focused upon learning more about the push factors driving this migration and possible humane solutions to the problem.
While poverty and the desire to reunify with family to attain security are ongoing motivations to migrate, USCCB found that that an overriding symbiotic trend has played a decisive and forceful role in recent years: generalized violence in the home and at the community and state level. Coupled with a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law, the violence has threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness that has pushed children out of their communities and into forced transit situations.
Mr. Chairman, we acknowledged in our trip report in January that each country exhibited individual challenges which have added to these push factors. Additionally, in response to the increased flow of children in recent weeks, we also acknowledge that certain new country-specific factors may have impacted the latest flow of children. One such factor is the recent crackdown of gang-activity from within prisons in Honduras and efforts to increase police presence by newly elected leader Juan Orlando Hernández. With the increased efforts by the Honduran government to stem communications from gang-leaders within prisons, there are reports of increased violence as gangs fragment and mid-level criminal operators compete for control.
Mr. Chairman, the ongoing generalized violence, leading to coercion and threats to the lives of citizens—particularly children—of these countries, is the overwhelming factor facing these children and propelling their migration. Extortion, family abuse and instability, kidnapping, threats, and coercive and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations and gangs have become part of everyday life in all of these countries. In addition to the violence and abuse at the community and national level, transnational criminal organizations, such as the Mexican-based Zeta cartel, which deals in the smuggling and trafficking of humans, drugs, and weapons, operate in these countries and along the migration journey with impunity, and have expanded their influence throughout Central America.
I note that the increase in violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador forcing children and adults out of their homes is affecting the entire region, not just the United States. For example, since 2008 Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize—the countries surrounding the Northern Triangle countries—have documented a 712% combined increase in the number of asylum applications lodged by people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Mr. Chairman, in our January trip report we detail the increased violence against children and families in Central America. Given the difficult conditions minors must confront in their home countries, USCCB believes that a robust protection regime for children must be implemented in Central America, Mexico, and the United States. Based on our presence in sending countries, we see the following as reasons for the increased number of children arriving in the United States:
a. Violence perpetrated by organized transnational gangs, loosely-affiliated criminal imitators of gangs, and drug cartels, has permeated all aspects of life in Central America and is one of the primary factors driving the migration of children from the region. USCCB found that in each country—particularly Honduras and El Salvador—organized gangs have established themselves as an alternative, if not primary, authority in parts of the countries, particularly in rural areas and towns and cities outside the capitals.
Gangs and local criminal actors operating in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have consolidated their bases of power, expanded and upgraded their criminal enterprises and honed their recruitment and terror tactics. In many cases, the governments are unable to prevent gang violence and intimidation of the general public, especially youth. USCCB heard accounts of gang members infiltrating schools and forcing children to either join their ranks or risk violent retribution to them or their families. Even in prisons, incarcerated gang members are able to order violence against members of the community. There also were reports that law enforcement have collaborated with the gangs or at least have been lax in enforcing laws and prosecuting crimes. For example, according to Casa Alianza, an NGO that works in Honduras, 93 percent of crimes perpetrated against youth in Honduras go unpunished.
Localized violence has severely exacerbated the lack of economic and educational opportunities for youth and has led to stress on the family unit, family breakdown, and even domestic abuse, which leaves children unprotected and extremely vulnerable. The escalation in violence, combined with the lack of jobs and quality education, has led to a breakdown in the family unit, as male heads of households—or sometimes both parents—have left for the United States, leaving children behind with relatives, often grandparents.
Children who have parents working abroad are especially vulnerable to community violence and forced migration as they can become targets for gang extortion due to the perceived or actual remittances they may receive. Additionally, as children enter teenage years and are increasingly at risk for victimization or recruitment by gangs, it becomes increasingly difficult for their relatives, especially elderly grandparents, to protect them.
To this end, the United Nations Development Program reports that 26.7% of all inmates in El Salvador they interviewed in 2013 never knew their mother or father growing up.17 Schools no longer function as social institutions that offer a respite from the violence and instead have become de facto gang recruitment grounds.
As a result of being targeted because of their family situation or perceived wealth, children flee, as a strategy to escape the gangs, to help support the family, and to reunify with their parents or other loved ones, many of whom have been separated for years.
Abuse in the home also has created stress, fear and motivation to leave the family home as well as the community. The pressure on families from local violence, economic uncertainty, and family-member absence has a deleterious effect on the family unit, as instances of domestic abuse towards women and children have grown. It has been documented that more unaccompanied children are reporting instances of child abuse and neglect undertaken by non-parental caretakers.18 Children, in particular girls, are particularly exposed to domestic violence.
A survey carried out by UNICEF revealed that 7 out of 10 unaccompanied children reported having been abused in their homes. 19 In El Salvador it was reported that the domestic violence and sexual abuse of women and girls in the private sphere remain largely invisible and are consequently underreported.
Migrating children do not find the protection they need once they arrive in Mexico, even those who are eligible for asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has consistently reported that an increasing number of unaccompanied children from Central America in particular are vulnerable to exploitation and cannot access protection in Mexico.