The Vulnerability of Unaccompanied Minors from Central America
Unaccompanied, Underage, Undocumented, Unprotected: The Crisis for Teenage Boys at the Border
*originally published in Deep South Daily on Sep. 7, 2014.
WHY TEENAGE BOYS CROSSING THE BORDER ARE FUNNELED INTO EITHER OPPORTUNITY… OR HELPLESSNESS.
In recent months, the surge of Central American children arriving at Texas’ southern border has become a hot topic, but the debate has been shortsighted. Hopefully, the impulsive suggestion from right-wing Congressmen to gut TVPRA provisions respecting our international obligations will not come to fruition, but then what? Although we are in crisis mode, we can’t ignore the potential issues we’ll face while these children are within our borders.
A few months ago, a Google search of “unaccompanied minors” would result in Delta or American Airlines protocols for children traveling alone. Today, a Google search for “human trafficking” results in countless links concerning sex exploitation. Taken together, this illustrates our inexperience with large numbers of unaccompanied minors at our borders and misperceptions of human trafficking — both of which converge to create potentially grave consequences for teenage boys migrating to the U.S. from Central America.
Some have rightfully labeled the drastic influx in unaccompanied minors from Central America a humanitarian crisis, and this crisis eerily mirrors issues I was concerned with last summer as a research associate for a Slovak organization assisting asylum-seeking immigrants and refugees. The vast majority of minors were teenage boys fleeing North Africa and the Middle East out of desperation and in search of better opportunity. Authorities did not appreciate the vulnerability of this profile. I’m afraid the stage is set for the U.S. to replicate this failure.
In 2012 and 2013, over three-quarters of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the Mexico-U.S. border were boys, and over three-quarters of unaccompanied minors were at least fourteen years old. Because we associate child exploitation with sex trafficking, our conception of vulnerability is overly gendered. Because we consider younger children more vulnerable than teenagers, these boys receive little sympathy and are perceived as “illegals” rather than children of an at-risk population. Empirical evidence tells us these perceptions are misperceptions.
According to the International Labor Organization, there are an estimated 20.9 million victims of forced labor today, and that is the “conservative” estimate of this largely hidden crime commonly referred to as “modern-day slavery.” Of the forced laborers, 5.5 million are children. 3.78 million children are victims of forced economic labor and exploitation, compared to the 960,000 victims of sexual exploitation. Moreover, child labor is much more common among boys than girls for the 15–17 years age group. In 2012, 81.4% of 15–17 year old child laborers were male.
The odds don’t look great for these boys. Will they end up dehydrated and underpaid in the tobacco fields of North Carolina or poultry plants of Alabama? Perhaps they will work construction in Florida or in a restaurant in Atlanta for little pay and in unhealthy living conditions?
As our boys finish up summer league baseball and dreadfully go back-to-school shopping, others are fleeing extreme poverty, violence, persecution, and abuse. Teenage boys in pursuit of better opportunity are undertaking a dangerous journey, at risk of exploitation by smugglers, traffickers, gangs, and cartels in Central America and Mexico. The fortunate ones make it to the Rio Grande Valley. Finally, teenage boys are being released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement into the care of distant relatives, family friends and foster care organizations across the country.
Although the Vera Institute of Justice estimates 40% of these children are potentially eligible for relief, Kids In Need of Defense estimates that 30% are ordered removed in absentia — once again, vulnerable and under the radar. Perhaps they are desperate to make money to send back home or settle a smuggling debt. These boys find themselves, once again, prime targets for exploitation — deportable, poor, non-English speaking, and in a completely foreign place.
Although the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) considers non-refoulment as an obligation of customary international law, the U.S., unsurprisingly, has not taken that position. So, while European countries have been respecting the rights of Afghan and Iraqi children fleeing our wars, our Congress contemplates neglecting the same obligation. On top of that, our foreign policies with Latin America — from destabilizing governments and manipulating elections to the war on drugs — have contributed to the current state of extreme poverty and violence in Central America.
Of course, there is a confluence of push and pull factors causing this influx of migration, but the need for short-term solutions shouldn’t preclude establishing long-term solutions. We can’t neglect our humanitarian obligations by merely doubling up on border control and deporting children to unsafe situations, arguably violating customary international law. On the other hand, we can’t dismiss our obligations to protect children within our borders. If these children are exploited in the U.S., the trafficking industry flourishes. If we answer this crisis with stricter anti-immigration policies, the smuggling industry flourishes.
We must develop comprehensive policies respecting human rights and the best interest of the child with coordinated procedures addressing causal factors in Central America, Mexico’s burden-sharing role as a transit state, and our obligations domestically.