CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A recent surge in illegal child immigration to the U.S. has reached a critical point, and the Senate has promised to allocate $1.9 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services to accommodate apprehended children. This $1 billion increase in funding would work to address what Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called “a severe humanitarian crisis.”
Children captured looking to enter the U.S. illegally from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are held in federal border housing. The facilities are not equipped to deal with the new surge of immigration; while they only processed 6,500 children in 2011, 47,000 young people have been processed in the last eight months alone. Of them, about 35,000 came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, meaning that they could not simply be sent back to Mexico.
Conditions in the overcrowded shelters are appalling. Most children are stuck sleeping on plastic cots, and not all have access to clean clothes or showers. The housing authorities have not provided the children with nutritious meals, and many, according to consul of Honduras to Arizona Tony Bonegas, “[cannot]eat the food and even [get]sick” because much of it is undercooked.
Illness is also becoming a problem for the migrant children. Outbreaks of chicken pox, MRSA, and even rabies have been reported in the facilities. The existing systems for medical care are not adequate for detecting infectious disease. As former border patrol officer Zack Taylor attests, “detainees will not be tested… unless individually requested,” which usually does not happen until disease has already spread.
The extra funds should help improve the existing housing units and allow for new ones to be built, while plans for private vendors and FEMA to give meals and medical care for the migrant children will also be enacted. While this action is important, it fails to solve the problem at its root. As long as conditions in Central American countries remain the same, more children will continue to attempt to cross the border illegally.
Why are so many young children trying to cross the border now, especially from countries south of Mexico? One of the primary reasons is crime. Countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are overrun with drug cartels and street gangs.
Honduras in particular has 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, which according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime is the world’s worst. When conducting interviews with migrants last March, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found that about half “had experienced or been threatened with serious harm” in their native countries.
Poverty is another major problem that citizens of these countries face. Although Honduras’ economy grew 3 percent in 2013, most of the growth came from money that immigrants living in the U.S. sent back to their families, not from the country itself. Data from the CIA World Factbook indicates that 60 percent of Honduras’ population lives in poverty, compared to 52 percent in Guatemala and 36 percent in El Salvador.
The terrible violence and hardships in Central America force children to travel alone to the U.S., where some hope to reunite with family living there. This journey is not a safe one. In addition to the difficult desert wilderness that the children cross, drug cartels in Mexico attack the vulnerable migrants as they move north. Many that reach the border are detained and end up in the federal facilities, which still need more resources.
For the safety of the children, something must be done to make Central America a better place to live. How can the U.S. improve conditions in Central America and reduce the flow of child immigrants across its borders? The nation already provides millions of dollars in foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Nevertheless, not all aid spending goes to where it is most needed. ForeignAssistance.gov reports that, of the $82.7 million in aid spending, only $178,200 went to maintaining security and peace. Given the high crime rates in Honduras, more aid money needs to be diverted to maintaining security forces and reducing crime, in addition to what is already spent on economic development.
The problem of illegal child immigration is difficult but not impossible to solve. Increased effort will be required to develop more secure states and reduce crime in Central America, and while this may cost extra money in foreign aid, it will help millions of children escape poverty.