By the end of this year, approximately 100,000 children will have made the perilous journey from Central America through Mexico to cross the United States’ southern border.
That startling influx was the focus of “Child Migration and Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis,” a panel discussion at Fordham Law School on June 18.
Moderator Olga Byrne, who directs the New York Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project at the Feerick Center for Social Justice, said that most of the children were fleeing poverty and violence in three countries: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In a harrowing account of the violence, Peggy A. Healy, Covenant House International’s senior vice president for Latin America, described her visit to Honduras where some of her colleagues had experienced death threats, violent robberies, and even kidnappings.
“Honduras tops the list in the number of homicides outside of a war zone,” she said. “To go to work is absolutely dangerous. Fifty-two people were killed just when I was there three weeks ago. It’s simply not livable in these countries.”
With so many lacking an education, Healy said the children’s only opportunities are to work in a factory, become a drug mule, or become a hit man. And interfamily violence only exacerbates an already terrible situation that includes beheadings.
“It’s important to recognize these kids as refugees,” she said. “They walk for hundreds of miles, swimming across several rivers to get here, not just the Rio Grande. Think about that beloved 12- or 13-year-old in your life on this journey. Each has a story. Each has a history. And each has a name.”
Armando Borja, national director at Jesuit Refugee Services, said most of the children cross the border in Texas. There, they are detained in cold facilities lacking showers. They share water bottles and food that is often still frozen. A breakdown of asylum referral system means that the children are essentially treated as criminals.
Borja said that the United States and Mexico are in negotiations to secure Mexico’s southern border, meaning that those needing protection will be denied entry.
“The move will block access to people who are fleeing for their lives,” he said.
Drawing an international parallel, Borja reminded the audience that the United States is “begging” Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open to refugees fleeing the violence there. He noted that nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian.
“And here in a nation of 300 million we’re sounding the alarms for 60,000 children,” he said.
Christa M. Stuart, coordinator at New York State Human Trafficking and Unaccompanied Children Programs in the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, said that New York welcomes refugees and that legal remedies exist for children who are properly screened.
But while the attendees agreed that New York is better than most states when it comes to handling displaced refugees, the sudden influx has overwhelmed the court systems and volunteer lawyers that could help the children to access services.
Kathleen M. Maloney, staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit, said her office in downtown Manhattan has been overwhelmed and is in need of legally-trained volunteers.
“These children don’t have the right to a government-paid attorney,” she said. “The numbers have just been exploding, so it’s impossible for our two lawyers to handle the juvenile docket.”
“We’re putting our fingers in holes and the damn is about to break,” she said.
The event was sponsored by the Feerick Center and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs.
For more information on how to help contact Olga Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org.