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Last spring, striking images of the U.S. border began showing up in the media: Children from Central America, many traveling alone, piling up at immigration facilities. By October, nearly 70,000 unaccompanied child migrants had arrived seeking entry to the United States. This year, the numbers have dropped by about 40 percent, due in large part to stepped up enforcement by Mexico. However, that still means tens of thousands of kids will be taken into custody by the U.S. immigration system, even as the government struggles to process last year’s arrivals. A look at the ongoing migration of children from Central America and the tension between protection and prevention.
Voices From El Salvador
On any given night in El Salvador, at least 10 people will be murdered. That's in part because gangs, known as maras, operate with impunity.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She will be back next week. Last year, a record number of children from Central America attempted to cross the U.S. border, a startling percentage of them were unaccompanied minors. This year, the numbers have declined significantly, but they're still high, still the second highest in history. This hour, we'll consider the continuing migration of children from Central America and the unique challenges they pose to the U.S. immigration system.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio are Marc Rosenblum of The Migration Policy Institute, Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense and Armando Trull of WAMU. Also, from a studio at Harvard University, we have Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies. Thanks to all of you.
MR. MARC ROSENBLUMGood morning.
MS. WENDY YOUNGThank you.
MS. JESSICA VAUGHANThank you.
GJELTENBoy, talk about a challenging situation. We really have it here and we do want to widen this conversation. You can join us with your questions and comments. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach us via Facebook or Twitter. Marc Rosenblum, let's begin with you. Just review quickly what we saw happening last spring and summer.
ROSENBLUMWell, what we've seen for the last several years, we always see a rise in immigration from Central America in the spring and summer.
ROSENBLUMLast year, those numbers shot up much more dramatically than they ever have in the past. Beginning in March, they were on pace to be about, you know, about a 20 percent increase over the previous year. But then, by April and May, they really shot up and we ended up seeing about 68,000 children, unaccompanied children arrive at the border last year, along with 69,000 family units, mothers with children.
ROSENBLUMSo those were numbers that were more about a 60 percent increase over the previous year, which had already been almost a 50 percent increase over the year before that. So this has been sort of a sustained and pretty dramatic increase in arrivals.
GJELTENOkay. So we have all these children and often with their mothers arriving. What then happened to them?
ROSENBLUMWell, under U.S. law, children from -- unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico or Canada are required to get a full hearing in immigration court to determine, you know, whether they have a humanitarian claim, whether they may be eligible for asylum or some other form of relief that would allow them to stay in the U.S.
ROSENBLUMSo they quickly get passed from CVP, from border patrol. They get apprehended or present themselves to a border patrol agent. The border patrol is required to pretty quickly pass them over to the office of refugee resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, which has, you know, more of a humanitarian mission. And the office of refugee resettlement sort of is in charge of holding the kids until they get placed in the least restrictive setting, which is the best interest of the child because also under U.S. law, children, unaccompanied children, are not held in detention.
ROSENBLUMThey're placed in the least restrictive setting in the best interest of the child. And then, one of the challenges is that the wait times for them to get their immigration hearings were very long, over two years. So most of those kids who arrived last year and in 2013 still haven't had their immigration hearings.
GJELTENSo Armando Trull, this is a phenomenon that begins in Central America. As Marc said, these kids are coming from Central America. You did some reporting for WAMU from Central America. What did you find are the conditions or factors that are pushing these mothers, these families to send their kids to America in what is an incredibly dangerous journey?
MR. ARMANDO TRULLWell, Tom, one of the biggest issues is violence. You've got the highest murder rates in non-war countries in the northern triangle region of Central America, that includes El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. And, in fact, this year, El Salvador is on pace to become the deadliest country in the world because the murder rate has blown up this past year.
GJELTENSo when you went there and talked to people, they would say that the reason they're leaving is because there's so much violence in their communities?
TRULLBecause they're scared and because there is very little support from the governments to protect them. They believe that the government, sometimes, is part of an enforcement mechanism that is used by the different actors that are instigating the violence. And, of course, you've got different conditions in different countries, but you've got violence that is gang-related. You've got violence that is drug cartel related.
TRULLYou've got violence that is criminal, gang related and then you've got institutional violence from some government actors and that, in addition to some very desperate poverty issues, is driving it. And you've got to make a link between what's happening now in those countries and what began in the '80s because of an armed conflict between the right and the left that devastated those countries, that basically...
GJELTENDestroyed the economies.
TRULL...destroyed the economies, set off a migration of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans that began coming to the United States then and that's been unabated, really.
GJELTENJessica Vaughan, what Armando is describing are what demographers like Marc Rosenblum here would probably describe as push factors. They're the factors pushing these kids out. And I'm betting that you don't disagree that those factors do in fact push people out. What are some of the pull factors here in the United States that draw people to this country?
VAUGHANWell, there are a couple of them. One is the fact that in many of these families, the parents or at least one parent has already been living here illegally and has arranged with a smuggling organization to have the kids brought up to the United States, knowing that if they can make it to the United States and turn themselves over to the border patrol that they will be reunited with their family members and allowed to stay pretty much indefinitely.
VAUGHANAnd the knowledge that this will be the result is what is pulling them to the United States. They know that they will be allowed to stay and that is, in fact, what has happened. And they know that they will ultimately be able to join their parents who've been living here illegally, you know, for an indefinite period. Many of them have had their status laundered through prosecutorial discretion policies or other actions that the Obama administration has taken.
VAUGHANAnd, of course, the administration has declared that they are not moving to deport illegal aliens who are living here unless they get convicted of a serious crime. So all of this is creating incentives for people to come here illegally knowing that if they get here, they'll be allowed to stay.
GJELTENWendy Young, you're the executive director of Kids in Need of Defense. What Jessica Vaughan just laid out are the expectations that a lot of these families have that drive them to bring their kids to this country, what they think will happen. What, in fact, happens to these children and their mothers when they do arrive here?
YOUNGSure. Well, first, I'd like to point out that these children are doing what refugees around the world do, when they have to flee the kind of conditions that Armando was describing, they go where they think they will be most safe. And for children, of course, the most natural place to go is where you would have a family member who can provide you with care. And that, in fact, is what happens. About 90 percent of the children are released from federal custody within about a month to a family member who is resident here in the United States who the provides care to the child.
YOUNGBut the important thing, I think, to keep in mind is the child is still in deportation, a removal proceedings under immigration law. So their future is still very uncertain. They have a huge hurdle in front of them to demonstrate to an immigration judge that they need protection in the United States and should be allowed to remain. And, unfortunately, many of these children are having to make that case without the assistance of counsel, about 70 percent of them.
YOUNGSo the cards are really stacked against them in this process.
GJELTENMarc, an important question here. So these are the conditions that explain why so many people are coming here. What are the grounds? What actually are the legal grounds for which, you know, that these people can use to justify their claim to immigrate?
ROSENBLUMSo the two main sort of humanitarian visas that are potentially available to them are asylum and what's called special immigrant juvenile status. And asylum is available to people who are fleeing persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of sort of five specific reasons. And it's based on their political beliefs, their religion, their race, being a member of a special group or...
ROSENBLUM...political opinion, thank you. So, you know, the specific conditions that exist in Central America, sort of generalized gang violence and very specific kinds of violence don't really fit squarely into any of those categories or, you know, the kids often it's difficult for them to make an asylum claim so the other grounds that's important for a lot of them is this immigrant juvenile status. And that's available to people who have been neglected or abandoned by a parent.
ROSENBLUMAnd so some more of them are able to make that claim, but that's a very difficult sort of legal process to go through to get sort of certified that you've been abandoned or neglected. It involves going to state court before you go to immigration court in order to establish that you're a ward of the state. So it is a very complicated legal process.
ROSENBLUMAnd one of the things that we see, just to build on the point that Wendy made, is that the kids without attorneys very rarely get any kind of relief. But the kids with attorneys are often able to get some form of relief, either one of those two visas that I just mentioned or they get their cases closed without actually getting a visa. But the breakdown is, like, 80 percent of the kids with lawyers get relief versus 12 percent of the kids without lawyers.
TRULLNow, Politico did a study of some -- of those numbers and basically found, through (word?) act that 9 out of 10 of the children with no lawyers lose the case, 7 out of 10 with lawyers win.
GJELTENOkay. Armando Trull is a senior news reporter at WAMU. He traveled to Central America last year to cover this surge in child migrants that we're talking about today. We're gonna take a short break right now. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And we're discussing the surge in the migration of children, often unaccompanied but sometimes also with their mothers, that we have been seeing in a number of years, but it really accelerated last year, and we're talking about what happened to those kids, what will happen and what we see developing here.
GJELTENMy guests are Marc Rosenblum, who is deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute here in Washington. Also Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, K-I-N-D, KIND. Armando Trull, a senior news reporter at WAMU here in Washington, who has covered this story. They're all here in the studio with us. And on an ISDN line from Harvard University, we have Jessica Vaughan, who is the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies.
GJELTENAnd Jessica, one of the things that you mentioned before was how many of these children are coming her as a result of smuggling activity. And I want to turn now to Armando Trull, who -- Armando, in your travels in Central America, you came across this kind of smuggling network. What can you - what kind of description can you - what's going on here in terms of what you found in terms of the smuggling connection here?
TRULLIt's both a big business and a cottage industry. They are charging anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000 per child to smuggle into the United States. They have what you could almost describe as a UPS model, where you can pay to have your child delivered door to door. And when you multiply those numbers, just $5,000 times 120,000 people that were smuggled last year, you're talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a lot of money anywhere, but certainly in Central America.
TRULLAnd then you've got people that hire themselves out because they've done the trip themselves, and they will guide people, at least to the U.S.-Mexico border. So there's just a lot of money to be made in this, and that is another reason why this is happening.
GJELTENWell, Jessica Vaughan, what Armando is describing amounts to a constituency for the status quo here, wouldn't you say?
VAUGHANOh, most definitely, and the fact that the same policies are still in place now, where pretty much almost everyone who makes it to the United States is allowed to stay, you know, that makes a huge incentive for people to keep doing this because while the law itself is set up to be arduous for someone to actually be awarded political asylum or special immigrant juvenile status, in practice the way currently the system that is in place under this administration works out is that almost everybody gets to stay, whether they are given a legal status or not.
VAUGHANSo in other words, more than half the people aren't even showing up for their asylum hearing. Even if they show up for their hearing, and their asylum claim is denied because they're not actually fleeing persecution in most cases, they still are not going to be subjected to immigration enforcement because they are not a priority for enforcement under the administration's guidelines, unless they've been convicted of a serious crime.
VAUGHANAnd the way that plays out in reality is that almost everybody gets to stay, and that's a very powerful incentive for people to keep coming. Unfortunately, the communities where they end up being resettled have no say in this, and so they're the ones who are really struggling and left with the task of trying to support these new arrivals and absorb them into the community and, you know, get the kids in schools and, you know, into a situation where they can be learning because they are kids.
VAUGHANBut the costs of this policy are huge for the state and local governments that are picking up the tab, and that's...
GJELTENAnd you think they should -- you think that this administration, this government, should just deport them more quickly and in greater numbers?
VAUGHANWell, the reality is that since they're already here, the chances of people getting deported is very slim. But I think what's going to end up happening is that Congress is going to have to take a look at the law and how it has been applied and make some changes to prevent this from happening in the future, and there are probably going to have to be some adjustments in the legal immigration system to account for this because, you know, we have millions of people around the world who are waiting to come here through the legal immigration system, and they have literally been set aside because the priority has been legalization programs and resettlement programs like this that are given more attention and given priority in terms of the government's resources.
VAUGHANAnd this is all outside the limits that have been set by Congress.
GJELTENWe are joined now by a special guest, Alejandro Estivill, who is the acting ambassador from Mexico here in the United States. Ambassador Estivill joins us by phone, and thank you for making time in your busy day, Ambassador.
AMB. ALEJANDRO ESTIVILLThank you, Tom, for the opportunity.
GJELTENYeah, so just wondering what your thoughts are about this situation. One of the things we mentioned at the top of the program, Ambassador, is that the number of children and their mothers crossing the border has, in fact, dropped significantly since last summer. To what extent is that due to measure that your government has taken in Mexico?
ESTIVILLIt could be an important relationship, I mean, the Mexican decisions and the policies that we have taken in our southern border. First of all, I have to say that Mexico is a very engaged country in all this because of the social vision that we have of the whole process in which human rights have to be very important. The geography, we are a transit of origin but also of transit and destiny of migration. And of course the vision that we have that the only we tackled the causes, the deep causes in terms of development, opportunities, employment in the origin communities, is going to be solved.
ESTIVILLSo Mexico developed a southern border program, and we are working very hard in terms of protocols, infrastructure and things like that in our southern border, and of course there are less numbers here in the Mexico-U.S. border, but in general terms, bigger numbers of migration in the Mexican southern border. It is still early to know exactly about that because the peak was in June, but we see an increase in our southern border of migrants, and among them, some of them minors.
GJELTENSo are you trying to turn some of these children from Central America back as soon as they cross the borders from Central America into Mexico?
ESTIVILLWe turn them back after doing some kind of a screening. We put in place some protocols. We have to take care of the most -- the vulnerable people. So minors are among them. So we have to interview, and our new law that was enacted in 2011, establishes very clearly that this is not an offense, it is not a criminal behavior to migrate. So we have to take care mostly of the human rights of all these people and, when we return them, to do it in some -- in a safe way, taking care of the security and safety of these people and the protection of the vulnerable ones.
ESTIVILLSo we have a very specialized way of doing that. We have special officers for that, more than 500 children protection officials that have to take care of minors and try to, in the best way possible, reunite them with their families in their original communities.
GJELTENAmbassador, not all of these children are Central American. Many of them, in fact, come from your country, are Mexican children. What do you, what does your government say to those communities, those families from which a lot of these children are coming, and why do you think they are leaving Mexico to try to come to the United States?
ESTIVILLIn the case of Mexico, there are some structural reasons that can be different. Of course, among these minors, not the majority were Mexicans in the peak of last year, but those Mexicans of course are very relevant for us, and we have to keep some opportunities here in Mexico, well, there in Mexico. The thing is that the structural reunification with the families, as a lot of Mexicans already because of historical reasons, live already in the United States, is a little different.
ESTIVILLSo there are some many, many, broader scope of reasons for Mexicans, for the migration incentives. It's not only the case that you have mentioned, as was very clear at the beginning of the program, for the U.S. law a Mexican be immediately expelled back to Mexico. So what we are doing -- and that's something that happened just yesterday, we put in place a very important protocol done together with UNICEF for screening and making a good interview for all those Mexicans that are coming back to Mexico so we've got - we can really know exactly the reasons why they were migrating, we can find easily vulnerable people so that we can help them.
ESTIVILLWe put in place opportunities of jobs and assimilation back to their own communities so that the option of migration is only an option, and it's not something like it's an obligation because of social, socio-economical reasons or whatever. So that's why we are seeing, at this moment, in these days, we are not having terrible crisis in terms of Mexican migrating, and even the migration from Mexico to the U.S. is negative. In this moment, more Mexicans are coming back to Mexico than going to the U.S., something that can change because of economical reasons, in terms of the growth of the U.S. economy and things like that.
GJELTENOne final question, ambassador, and then we're going to let you go, we were talking just before you came on about the problem of smugglers and the fact that they are charging thousands of dollars for this, and that creates kind of an economic incentive for some of these organizations. What are your thoughts on that, and are you seeing sort of any kind of criminal, organized crime involvement in these smuggling networks there from your standpoint in Mexico?
ESTIVILLYes, we have to be very aware of the fact that most of the migration is done by these criminal organizations, partly because our laws in all the regions, this is a regional problem that we have to take it under the shared responsibilities vision is that being a smuggler of persons is less costly than even some other criminal activities. So there's an incentive for that.
ESTIVILLSo all these process and protocols that we put in place are also aimed at tackling and knowing more about those smugglers and those criminal gangs so that we can act against them. So we have a lot of bilateral and also in Mexico system to try to find out and interview the victims of those criminal activity, in a way that we can act against them. But we also know that some of those big things are under some kind of pressure to really put in place all the information that we need for that.
ESTIVILLSo those protocols give the safety for the children to express themselves in a way that we can also act against those criminal gangs.
TRULLI'd like to ask the ambassador one question, Tom, please. The U.S. government has been holding young Mexican immigrants for a lot longer than they should have, to try to develop information about the smuggling cartels, and there have been complaints from your government to the U.S. government because when some of those young Mexicans are ultimately released, they wind up getting killed. Can you tell us a little bit about where that is going?
ESTIVILLIndeed, we are worried about those cases, and what we are trying to do is to develop better systems of cooperation with the United States so that the information can be shared, and we know more about exactly which were the circumstances that provoked those cases. For us, at this moment, we have very good bilateral groups, and with that, information is starting to flow better so that we can jointly act against those gangs that -- when they are a regional problem because that is starting in Central America and even in Canada.
ESTIVILLSo they are very structured gangs, and we have to act in a way that we share the information and work very comparatively.
GJELTENWell, this is a real challenging situation for your government, as well as ours. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining this conversation. I'm sure that this issue occupies a lot of time these days.
ESTIVILLYes, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity, really.
GJELTENAlejandro Estivill is the acting Mexican ambassador to the United States. We're talking about the child migrant problem. I want to remind our listeners that our phone number is 800-433-8850. Our email is email@example.com. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listen to "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENWendy, let's get back to the situation of what happens to these children after they come to the United States. I know that there is a court case pending in California around the administration's use of these family detention centers because a lot of these kids are being detained with their mothers in family detention centers. What's your view of that situation, and where -- and what implications does this court case have?
YOUNGThe detention of families is one of the measures that this administration undertook to try and send a strong deterrent message back to Central America that children and families should not attempt the journey to the United States because their proceedings will be expedited, they will be detained, and they will be returned to their home country.
YOUNGThat is a very unfortunate measure in our perspective, because I think it fails to acknowledge that fundamentally we're facing a refugee crisis in this situation and that we need to provide children and families a fair and full opportunity to share their story with us so that we can sort out who in fact needs asylum and who can be safely returned to the home country.
GJELTENAnd, you know, Marc mentioned earlier sort of the legal grounds, that there is a legal procedure here. And yet one of the things that you've pointed out is that a lot of these kids don't have access to lawyers. They end up getting deported, even those who have a legitimate claim, may have a legitimate claim to reside here. It sounds like this whole system is really broken.
YOUNGIt is fundamentally broken and dysfunctional. Seventy percent of the children are going to court without a lawyer. And we've been in courtrooms and seen children as young as three or four years old appearing before an immigration judge, with the Department of Homeland Security typically arguing for the removal from the country, and there the toddler stands with no one to help them. It's just a fundamental violation of everything that the United States stands for in terms of due process and fundamental fairness.
GJELTENJessica Vaughan, some of what happens as a result of laws that have been passed that make it very hard to send children back without -- obviously without a hearing, what do you think needs to be done in terms of the laws that are right now on the books that sort of limit the options that the U.S. government has?
VAUGHANWell, certainly the law could be tweaked a little bit to improve it, but fundamentally, I think the problem is in the interpretation of the law by this administration, where they basically have determined that if a juvenile arrives here unaccompanied, they are to be given all of these special services and protections, even if they're really rejoining their family. So that's a problem. And, you know, the law was meant to help kids who arrive here unaccompanied who were victims of severe forms of human trafficking, and that is not the case with the vast majority of these kids.
VAUGHANThey're coming to rejoin their families because they know they will be allowed to stay, and the appropriate response to deter this is to change those policies. And I think, you know, it's pretty amazing that the Mexican government has managed to deal with this crisis on its southern border by finding a humane way to interdict and then repatriate these kids who are coming, as the ambassador said. They're being returned to their family members in their home country. The United States needs to follow suit and have, you know, a complementary policy. That's the only thing that's going to change the incentives that people have to contract with smugglers to come to the United States is there's no hope -- and part of that is a swift resolution of their case.
VAUGHANThe reality is that when someone arrives in the United States and says the magic word asylum, there's a 90 percent chance that they are going to be told, okay, you've cleared the first hurdle, now in three to five years come back for your immigration hearing. That's, you know, a system that makes no sense whatsoever. We need -- it's more fair for everybody if they are able to have a swift hearing near the border area to determine if they actually are threatened by violence or persecution if they're sent back.
GJELTENJessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. We're going to take a short break right here, and then we will be back to continue this discussion. Stay tuned.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today for this hour of "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're talking about the issue of children, and often with their mothers, migrating in huge, huge numbers, hundreds of thousands over the last few years, to the United States, and what challenges this presents to policymakers and to community leaders all across the country. My guests are Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
GJELTENWendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense. Armando Trull, a reporter here at WAMU who has followed this story closely. Jessica Vaughan, who is director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies. And, Marc, you have a report. You put a report and the title of it is "Unaccompanied Child Migrations to the United States: The Tension Between Protection and Prevention." And that subtitle really goes to the heart of the issue here, doesn't it.
GJELTENOn the one hand you do want to prevent this -- do something to sort of tamp down this surge of child migration. On the other hand, you also -- we also want to protect these kids and their rights and their interests once they're here. How do you see this tension being resolved between protecting the children and preventing more from coming?
ROSENBLUMYeah, I think, you know, fundamentally the challenge is that we have a real humanitarian refugee crisis. And it happens to be taking place in a region that has a long history of unauthorized immigration to the U.S. So it's very hard to deal with the refugee problem or the humanitarian problems without, you know, while sort of controlling for all of the challenges that present from the history of unauthorized immigration and the enforcement policies that we already have in place and that we need to keep in place to manage that.
ROSENBLUMSo I think, you know, Jessica was making the point before the break, one of the most important tools is to have a fair and quick adjudication process. So -- and that's really the only way, is to look at each of these cases individually to determine which kids are in need of protection and have a legitimate protection claim and which kids are sort of regular unauthorized immigrates.
ROSENBLUMAnd, you know, this has been presented as a border crisis. It's really been an adjudication crisis that there's been a bottleneck at the border, but what's been very broken is our ability to make those determinations and to, you know, provide an appropriate response on a case by case basis. So that's…
GJELTENThere's a bottleneck in the immigration court system, as well as the bottleneck at the border.
ROSENBLUMRight. And that's…
TRULLBecause Congress doesn't want to fund it. I mean, that's the whole issue. You don't have enough funding from Congress to address this. So you cannot have a fair process if there's no money for lawyers or any of the other people.
ROSENBLUMRight. Well, since…
VAUGHANYeah, but most of these cases don't even need to get to court to begin with because the fact is that they are not fleeing persecution. What we know from their conversations with the border patrol and with the reporters who go down and interview them, is that they're coming because their families paid a smuggler to have them brought to the United States because they know they will be allowed to stay. Not what the response to that…
TRULLBut a court needs to make that determination.
ROSENBLUMThat's not what the -- that's not what the U.N. has determined. It's not what the GAO has determined. It's not what the Congressional Research has -- Service has determined. I mean all of these independent organizations that have looked at it, the U.N. found that 62 percent of the kids have legitimate humanitarian claims.
VAUGHANHumanitarian is different for -- the State Department testified very recently about the situation in Central America and never mentioned persecution as something that is going on with these particular cases. They're -- most of them, it's a clear case of unauthorized illegal migration for family reunification and economic opportunity.
GJELTENWell, hold on. Wendy Young?
YOUNGThe U.N. Refugee Agency predict -- has estimated that 58 percent of these children are fleeing conditions that merit international protection. More importantly, these are children. The idea that they can go through a five, seven-minute screening by a border patrol agent in the southern border, standing in a border patrol station before a uniformed guard and articulate a fear of persecution is ridiculous. We have to provide these children with an opportunity to share their stories. The only way to do that is to allow the immigration courts to do their jobs and adjudicate these kids.
VAUGHANBut why does that have to happen in the United States?
GJELTENHold on, Jessica. Hold on. Jessica, I want to -- sorry. I want to bring our listeners in. You've had your opportunity. Sheila, you're on the line. Thanks for calling.
SHEILAThank you. My name is Sheila Starkey Hahn. I'm an immigration attorney in Memphis, Tenn. And I've been to the detention center in Artesia, N.M., housing women and children who have arrived together from Central America. And I can assure you, Ms. Vaughan, that they are not coming here solely for economic opportunity. They are coming here because of the severe violence they have suffered both -- frequently at the hands of gangs. Many of the cases I've dealt with have been domestic violence cases.
SHEILADomestic violence has been recognized by U.S. courts as a basis for an asylum claim. It is persecution. The U.S. State Department, you mentioned that they don't think there's persecution. I urge you to read the U.S. State Department country reports. For instance, for Guatemala you'll see that they do recognize that the domestic violence there does rise to the level of persecution. It is persecution where it's committed by someone who -- either the government or an actor of the government is unwilling or unable to control.
SHEILAAnd we -- our country and international law has -- or international bodies have recognized that the violence in those countries, the domestic violence, the gang-based violence that people are being persecuted. And what I saw at that detention in Artesia shocked my conscience as an American. I saw listless children coughing, crying, one had diarrhea for 18 days. They were being held in conditions that were horrendous. That detention center has since been shut down because of that.
SHEILABut now they're being held in Dilly, Texas, where -- which is where I'm headed next. And in Pennsylvania, in for-profit detention centers…
SHEILA…run by this GEO group and this other Corrections Corporation of America groups that lobby Congress for millions of dollars…
SHEILA…to try to keep these women and children detained. And you'll see, in those cases out of Artesia, case after case that had a proper hearing before an immigration court, those people had been winning asylum.
GJELTENOkay. Thank you very much, Sheila. Thank -- that was important information that you provided. But I want to get as many people as possible into this conversation. And let's go now to Amy, who is on the line from Texas. Hello, Amy. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
AMYHi, my name is Amy. I live in Clear Lake Shores and I, too -- I'm an attorney. Although, I do not do immigration law. But I do work with not-for-profits and work with poor children in our own country. And I think we have a moral obligation to take care of our own poor children who are being persecuted here with domestic violence.
AMYIn Baltimore, in Texas, in Chicago, all over the country, our own small children are being injured and not taken care of at all while millions and millions of dollars are being spent on these illegal immigrants who -- all over the world there are poor, poor children, but we need to take care of our own children and grow our own country and make our own country well before we can take of all of these other people.
GJELTENOkay. Wendy, your organization is entitled Kids in Need of Defense. What's your reaction to this argument that, you know, poor children who were born and raised here and are citizens are not being given adequate care and that that should be our top priority?
YOUNGWell, certainly I agree with the caller, that we also have an obligation to care for U.S. citizen children as well. That -- I think that is inarguable. But I'd also argue that children, regardless of what side of a border they find themselves on, have unique vulnerabilities because of their young age. And that part of what also defines us a country is how we treat children who come to us in search of safe haven.
YOUNGAgain, I'm not saying that all of these children should qualify for refugee status, but they should be given an opportunity to tell their story. Because for them, the United States may be the only place where they can be protected. And if we return them they may go back to very unsafe conditions and even lose their lives.
GJELTENMarc, do you have any sense -- does your organization have any sense of what percentage of the people who are arriving at the southern border, women and children, actually quality for immigration -- immigrant status here or do not qualify?
ROSENBLUMFor a humanitarian visa or for some other type of status?
GJELTENWell, for any type of legal status.
ROSENBLUMVery few -- I mean, very few of the kids or families who are arriving at the border have access, you know, there's no line for them to get into. Even if they have a family member here, if they're family member is unauthorized or if they have temporary protected status, which is a form of sort of quasi legal status that many Salvadorans and Hondurans have.
ROSENBLUMThose people here are not able to sponsor a family member for a visa. So anybody who is eligible for a visa because they've got a citizen family member here or a green card-holding family member here, it's likely that if they want to come they will get in a line. But very few of them have that opportunity.
GJELTENWould you agree with that, Jessica?
VAUGHANWell, yes. And that's because Congress has imposed limits on the number of legal immigrants that we take. We accept more than a million legal immigrants every year. Through our legal process there are more than 77,000 people in El Salvador alone who qualify based on their family relationships. But other people are bypassing that line. And I think we all agree that conditions are very difficult in some of these countries.
VAUGHANBut we have to ask ourselves, is the answer to simply allow people to come here and resettle? Or should we be doing more to address what's going on in these countries? We, you know, if we simply expand our definition of a refugee to anybody who lives in a violent place or in a violent family or, you know, a child whose kids have left the country to live illegally in another one, there's no way that can be sustained. And, you know, we have to make some choices.
VAUGHANThe Constitution puts that authority with Congress to decide who's gonna be accepted. And so that's the system that we should rely on, and recognize that we simply can't resettle the world here. It's just not a sustainable solution. And it is having an impact on local communities' abilities to meet the needs of everyone who's already in their communities that these…
GJELTENArmando Trull, Jessica mentioned the importance of addressing the conditions in these countries, the social and economic and political conditions that, in fact, do push people out. What can you tell us about the thinking about that here in Washington and what efforts this administration and members of Congress are doing to affect those conditions in those countries?
TRULLWell, Tom, over the past few months I've interviewed some White House officials who worked very closely on this issue, members of Congress, as well as State Department officials. And what they have launched is a -- in addition to pressuring Mexico to do more on its southern border, which was on leg of that stool. And the other leg was, you know, tighter immigration control at the border.
TRULLThe other leg is a billion dollar aid package, which is very different from past aid packages because it includes a lot of non-military, institution-building type of aid that is aimed at creating more investment in those societies. More types of NGO-funded programs, education programs that address some of the root causes of the problems in Central America. And again, I want to stress that America is a superpower, but sometimes we have a collective memory that only goes back to the last Super Bowl commercial.
TRULLWe spent billions of dollars in Central America in the '80s funding rightwing governments that destroyed entire villages, destroyed the economy, destroyed people's lives. That touched off a migration crisis that continues today. There is a responsibility to address that. The Obama administration is doing it by some of what it's doing now, investing this money.
GJELTENLet me read a comment that we got off our website from Joey, who I think probably speaks for a lot of our listeners, a lot of people who are concerned about this issue. He writes, "The developed world is facing a severe crisis in regards to immigration. I wish all of these migrants the best. I hope their lives are prosperous, safe and fulfilling. I just don't see how the West can absorb the endless millions who want to emigrate.
GJELTEN"Europeans countries have very liberal asylum policies, which are supposedly supported by majorities. But would those majorities still support those policies if they were taken to their logical conclusion? Same for the U.S. If we accepted every person that wanted to emigrate, it wouldn't be a couple of million people, it would be tens of millions of people." Marc?
ROSENBLUMWell, I think that -- to -- I'd respond two ways. One is that when you look sort of on a per capita basis, the European countries actually take in quite a few more refugees and asylees than the U.S. does. So we're not overwhelmed with refugees here in this country. And I would add to Armando's point, that in addition to the U.S. role in the civil war, is that the U.S. is very implicated in the recent security crisis in the region, both through drugs that flow through Central America, exclusively to U.S. markets, the weapons that flow from the U.S. into Central America.
ROSENBLUMAnd over the last decade or so we've deported about 200,000 criminals to Central America. So we bear a special responsibility to that region that doesn't imply a global responsibility.
GJELTENMarc Rosenblum from the Migration Policy Institute. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Linda who is on the phone. Linda is calling us from Chicago, Ill. Hello, Linda. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
LINDAHi. Thanks for having me. I'm a mental health professional and I've worked with these children directly in the past. And I would say it is absolutely ludicrous to think that a child who's been severely traumatized can tell an immigration official in a detention center in a short interview about their trauma. The children I have worked with have often taken months to disclose the information that affects their case tremendously because it is so difficult and traumatic. Additionally, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.
LINDAThe level of violence that many of these kids have witnessed and been victim of is undeniable. Secondly, I was also recently in Central America and I interviewed children who had been deported from Mexico and had spent time in the Mexican facility. Mexico has not found a humane way of "dealing with this issue." The U.S. has sent money to Mexico to do their dirty work. The Mexican facilities are horrendous. Children are abused. Children do not receive health care. They do not get interviewed adequately to find out if they even have an asylum case within Mexico.
LINDAThey're often detained for long periods of time and with adults. And I also spoke to Central American officials who had toured some of these detention facilities in Mexico. And that's money that…
LINDA…we're sending there that could be used in resettlement. Secondly, we consistently talk about these kids like they're a burden. They're not a burden. They're a blessing and they go to school and they go to work and they give back to their communities. And coming from a community that has resettled many immigrants, they are blessing to our communities.
GJELTENOkay. Thank you very much, Linda. Wendy, your thoughts. Have you been to Central America and looked at the detention facilities that these kids get deported back to?
YOUNGI have been to Central America. I have not visited the detention centers. However, members of my staff have. And they are very rudimentary facilities. They're not providing appropriate conditions for children. So this is something, I think, as the United States works with the Mexican government to address this migration crisis, they should be -- we should be using our influence to also encourage Mexico to provide appropriately for these children, as well as with the countries of origin to insure that children are safely returned to their communities and reintegrated into their families.
GJELTENWendy Young is executive director of Kids in Need of Defense. We're gonna have to wrap up this discussion now. My other guests were Mark Rosenblum from the Migration Policy Institute, Armando Trull from WAMU here in Washington, Jessica Vaughan director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies. We were joined earlier by Amb. Alejandro Estivill. He is the acting Mexican ambassador to the United States.
GJELTENApologies to all the listeners, and we had many of you who wanted to weigh in and just couldn't fit you all in. We'll be addressing this subject, I'm sure, in the future. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for listening.
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