“We created this policy, and we’ve got this draw,” Carter says. “And it’s criminal that there are little children that are walking out in the desert because of policies we created during this administration.”
Through DHS, foreign kids who have been abused, abandoned or neglected are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status and can get a green card to live and work in the United States permanently if they are unable to be reunited with a parent. And the chairman points specifically to the administration’s deferred-action policy of holding off on deporting children who entered before June 15, 2012, and then issuing them employment authorization for two years, as well as the practice of reuniting unaccompanied kids with relatives in the United States who are often illegally residing in the country themselves. The reunification policy creates a double standard in enforcement of child welfare laws, fueled by the government’s interest in saving money, Carter says.
“If an American citizen took their kids and dumped them out in the Sonoran Desert and told them to walk across the Rio Grande and catch the Border Patrol on the other side, and the parents funded that, we’d terminate their parental rights,” says Carter, a former district court judge. “And the truth is the states could do just that and put them in foster homes, but it would cost a ton of money.”
At a hearing last month, he asked newly seated Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske whether the immigration policy changes had caused the spike. Although recent entrants are not eligible for deferred action, Kerlikowske conceded that “deferred action, the family reunification is an issue,” adding later, “I certainly understand this issue of family reunification as being part of what really is a complex problem.”
But the commissioner said intensifying violence and criminal activity in Central America are the chief drivers of the mass migration.
HHS has also reported that, although the “reasons for this increase are complex,” rising violence in Central America is a major motivating factor. According to the department, 37 percent of all unaccompanied minors who entered the country in fiscal 2013 were from Guatemala, 30 percent were from Honduras and 26 percent came from El Salvador.
Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, says increasing violence in Central America has made life so dire that many children are willing to set out on the monthslong journey to the United States, clinging to the tops and sides of railcars in the notoriously dangerous Mexican freight train network referred to as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.”
“What you see is a lot of gang predators preying on them, traffickers preying on them, people who will rob them along the way, beat them along the way, and a high degree of sexual violence,” says Young, whose organization helps find legal representation for immigrant children. “The whole trip is just very, very dangerous. And you also see that kids may not make it, so they’ll get turned away at the border. But instead of going back to the home country, they’ll try again.”
DHS officials say the department is expanding foreign awareness campaigns aimed at dissuading kids from trying to illegally enter the United States by warning of the dangers and underscoring U.S. immigration laws.