Why Are So Many Unaccompanied Minors Fleeing Central America for the U.S.?

By Julianne Hing Jun 06, 2014

Scores of children, most of them from Central America and the majority without family or adults to accompany them, are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border at a staggering rate. Since November of 2013, some 47,000 unaccompanied children have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of apprehended unaccompanied minors averaged at around 6,800, according to a report by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (PDF). The influx has become a "humanitarian situation" of such significant proportions that this week the White House announced a coordinated federal response spearheaded by FEMA. 

But why are so many children taking such harrowing risks to make the journey from Central America to the U.S.? There are currently three prevailing theories, but no easy answers.

1) To reunite with family in the U.S. More than one-third of unaccompanied minors from Central America who crossed the border had at least one parent in the U.S., Vox’s Dara Lind reportedBrian Duran, a 14-year-old from central Honduras, told the AP

[Duran] knew that a couple of friends who left before he did had given themselves up after crossing and been reunited with family in the U.S. Sitting inside the walled compound of a migrant shelter in this Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from Texas, Brian wonders if that is still the case as he seeks a way to make his own crossing.

"I don’t know what the environment is like now, if they (Border Patrol) are supporting or if they are returning the minors," he said Tuesday. He said he has an uncle in the U.S., but doesn’t know where because he lost his number while journeying north.

2) To escape violence and economic instability in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. While factors in every country are unique, "one overriding factor has played a decisive and forceful role in recent years," reads the USCCB report (PDF). "Generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness." The USCCB report paints a portrait of rapid destabiliziation aggravated by transnational criminal networks responsible for wanton extortion, kidnappings, threats and forced conscription of youth into criminal activity.

PRI reported on the story of Eric, a teen from Honduras, whose father sent him to the U.S.:

Eric, who was 16, lived in Honduras with his father, who was a banker. Police would frequently detain Eric for petty infractions, and extort money from his father. Eric’s parents stopped paying the "fines" and ultimately Eric landed in a prison with adult inmates. Eric’s father paid what Cruz called a "ransom" to get him out of jail. Eric’s family sent him to California but he was ultimately deported, and returned to Honduras where he was killed. Authorities have not found those responsible for the murder.

3) To take advantage of lenient U.S. immigration policy regarding children. This line is particularly politicized, as it’s being pushed much more heavily by immigration restrictionists and Republican lawmakers. "Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America," Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte told the New York Times’ Julia Preston. Ana Solorzano, an immigration official based in El Salvador, told the New York Times that policy and deportation shifts, however subtle, left families with the impression that the U.S had "opened its doors" to women and children.

Not necessarily, reports the Washington Post’s Katie Zezima, who writes that while the U.S. does have more lenient policy for unaccompanied minors, it’s not clear that youth crossing right now are even aware of those policies shifts.