Along the first trimester of 2021, the government of the United States of America has reported an increase in the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador). Among the travelers, there is a group which stands out due to their extreme vulnerability: children and teenagers who endanger themselves without any guardian taking care of them throughout their journey.
A week ago, the US Congressional Representative for Texas, Enrique Roberto “Henry” Cuellar, revealed photographs of the children in the migrant detention center in the city of Donna, Texas. The images show how children are crowded in “rooms” divided with thin transparent polymer; only given isothermal blankets and plastic-lined mats are the meager resources for their comfort.
During the campaign months, US President Joe Biden (who took office in January of 2021) promised that, if elected, his “administration would treat asylum seekers at their border with dignity and ensure that they receive the fair, legal hearing to which they are entitled”. His promise contrasts with the current scenario.
The trenches became abysses
Unlike single adults and families, who are expelled to Mexico in the shortest possible interval (with a few exceptions) after they are detained by the US border patrol, children who travel unaccompanied are asylees in facilities located within US territory, while their cases are studied.
Ideally, the process starts when border patrol agents apprehend the children, then transfer them to their facilities. After guarding them for 72 hours (maximum), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would deliver these children and adolescents to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assess them medically and put them under quarantine. Simultaneously, each of the families to whom the custodies of the children will be entrusted are investigated (80% of the children and teenagers have a sponsor waiting for them in the USA and in 40% of the cases it is one of the parents or a legal guardian).
However, children remain crammed into facilities run by border protection patrols -whose job is to prevent undocumented migrants from entering the United States- for much longer than three days, because the shelters lack vacancies.
Troy Miller, the Senior Official performing the Duties of the Commissioner (SOPDOC) for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), asserts that children within DHS facilities are provided with care, food, and the possibility to take a shower every 48 hours. But Leecia Welch and Neha Desai (attorneys authorized to inspect the conditions in which unaccompanied migrant children are held) have stated that they were not allowed to enter to Donna City DHS facility, instead they were only allowed to interview 20 minors inside a portable unit. Some of the children reported that many of their fellows lacked any blankets or mat to sleep on, so they had to lay down on the floor and bare surfaces. Likewise, the children sometimes have to go three or even six days without being able to clean themselves properly.
It is estimated that a remarkably high number of children (14 thousand according to Diario.es, 15 thousand according to Forbes), many of them under 10 years of age, suffer the loss of their well-being while they spend up to a week stranded before being transferred to a hostel. The authorities refuse to be transparent and continue to hide numbers, and in the middle of this contradiction, Biden’s government prefers to call this a “challenge” when it is an actual crisis.
What does the US government say?
The Secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Alejandro N. Mayorkas, has made some statements regarding the humanitarian crisis on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security official website. He explains that the boost of unaccompanied immigrant minors is due to various factors, such as the devastation produced by the hurricanes that hit Central America in 2020, the increase in levels of crime, impunity, and violence in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America and Mexico, and the collateral ravages of the COVID 19 pandemic.
In his speech, Mayorkas demonstrated that the previous administration transferred an inefficient system to them, which continuously violated the rights of immigrants, closing shelters, expelling unaccompanied children to their fate, and even making them easy prey for traffickers. On the other hand, opponents of the new administration argue that President Biden’s decisions to remove immigration restrictions recklessly encourages immigrants to try to cross borders illegally.
The DHS Secretary admits that the 72 hours of detention stipulated by federal law are being exceeded, and that the spaces to house detained immigrants are in fact limited (they do not allow people to keep the social distancing demanded by the current pandemic).
The Next Step
On March 24th, President Joe Biden assigned Vice President Kamala Harris the task of solving the immigration crisis.
Now it is only about waiting for Harris’s first move, not to mention the possibility that the humanitarian abyss will simply widen. Members of the Republican party and some Democrats express their disagreement with the humanitarian crisis and the potential repercussions of the immigration agenda proposed by the current administration (stop the border wall construction, provide legal status to almost 11 million immigrants, reunify families) and warn that they will not facilitate their support.