Three Myths of the Unaccompanied Minors Crisis, Debunked

By Julianne Hing Jul 01, 2014

On Monday President Obama asked Congress for an emergency $2 billion to address the flows of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minor children arriving at the U.S-Mexico border. Arrivals of children, already estimated at 52,000 this year, are expected to reach a record 90,000. Obama asked for money to fund the addition of immigration judges, detention facilities and enforcement efforts to stem the tides of new arrivals. He also asked that Congress expand Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s powers to allow him to expedite the deportations of youth, many of whom are being held in converted Army bases across the country, the New York Times reported. 

With the failed prospects of immigration reform, the flows of primarily Central American unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border has become the immigration flashpoint of the moment. But Obama, as he does with most matters immigration-related, has responded with an enforcement-first approach. In so doing, the administration and Republican lawmakers both have perpetuated several key falsehoods about the crisis. Here now, some myth-busting on the top three myths both political parties are guilty of perpetuating:

Myth: The current refugee crisis is a creation of President Obama’s making.

Republican lawmakers are having a field day casting Obama administration policy, namely DACA–a program initiated in 2012 which gave a narrow class of undocumented youth short-term work authorization and protection from deportation–as responsible for the sudden uptick of new migrants. In early June, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions even called Obama "personally responsible" for the influx, Think Progress reported. It’s become popular political fodder for politicians with midterm elections on the mind. However, humanitarian groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Women’s Refugee Commission have noted the jump in unaccompanied minor border crossings since late 2011 (PDF), long before Obama announced DACA in June of 2012. 

What’s more, in interviews with hundreds of detained youth, multiple agencies and researchers have found that the vast majority have no idea about the existence of DACA, let alone the notion that they might take advantage of it for themselves.

Some have also theorized that smugglers are advertising DACA or the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), a Bush-era law which allows unaccompanied minors to be released into the custody of family or a sponsor while they await a deportation hearing in front of a judge, as the U.S. laying out the welcome mat for migrant children. In a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson gave credence to the theory that the influx is due in part to migrants swayed by smugglers’ false "promisos" of a free pass once they arrive in the U.S. Smugglers may be using the falsehood to drum up business for themselves, says Michelle Brané, the director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice program, but endemic gang violence and abject poverty are the decisive motivating factors creating the demand for their services. "People decide to leave first, and then they look for a way to leave," says Brané.

"Just because [migrants] think the U.S. is nicer than we actually are doesn’t mean that they don’t need protection and don’t qualify for protection," says Brané.

Myth: Telling parents in Central America to stop sending their children, and quickly deporting the ones who are here, will fix the problem.

It’s not just Republicans, though. The Obama administration, too, has fallen prey to a simplistic understanding of the situation.

On Thursday, President Obama used an ABC News interview to directly address parents in Central America. "Do not send your children to the borders," Obama said. "If they make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it." Media efforts to discourage families from sending their children on the treacherous, often deadly journey, have historically been ineffective, says Lauren Heidbrink, an anthropologist at National Louis University who has researched the issue from Guatemala. Most of the children fleeing Guatemala are rural, often extremely poor, and don’t necessarily watch TV or have access to newspapers. Parent-shaming oversimplifies the crisis, says Heidbrink. "The decision-making process to send a child is far more complicated than just a bad, misinformed parent sending their child."

What’s more, most families pay smugglers to get their children out of the country, with fees ranging from $7,500 to upwards of $10,000–with interest, says Heidbrink. The interest payments alone, often paid for by families taking out loans on their land, can threaten families’ very livelihoods. "The concern about rapid deportations is the conditions that spurred migration have not changed in any way, shape or form and in fact the conditions they’re returning to are complicated by all the debt they have," says Heidbrink. This forces them to remigrate funneling them into a cycle of migration and deportation.

Myth: This is an immigration problem.

The Obama administration called the bracing flows of tens of thousands of migrant children at the U.S. borders a "humanitarian crisis." But the administration is responding to it like it’s an administrative one, say critics. The proposed efforts to expedite deportations and roll back Bush-era TVPRA humanitarian protocols for dealing with unaccompanied child migrants is a serious concern for child advocates. "What the administration is proposing is that the process for adjudicating those claims be shortened, without the benefit of an immigration judge or legal representation, Kevin Appleby of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops told CBS. "It is akin to sending a child back into a burning building and locking the door."

Conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are all unique, but families are sending their children out of the country by and large to flee rampant violence, corruption, political instability and entrenched poverty. Youth, who are primary targets for gang recruitment, are particularly vulnerable. To stay in their home countries is to die, said children interviewed for a 2012 Women’s Refugee Commission report (PDF). Indeed, nearly 60 percent of children interviewed by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights had viable claims meriting U.S. protection, CBS reported. "It’s not an immigration issue," says the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Brané. "It’s a refugee issue."

"For us to say that that they cannot stay, that we don’t want them because there’s so many is absurd," says Brané. "Protection standards aren’t about how many people qualify, they’re about whether people need protection or not."