A Call to Action: U.S. Faces Unprecedented Humanitarian Crisis


“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”[1]

For over a hundred years, this excerpt from Emma Lazrus’ poem has stood as a message to the world that the United States will give refuge to the teeming masses escaping violence, religious prosecution, and discrimination amongst other things. However, in the last year the influx of over sixty-thousand unaccompanied minors entering our country illegally has put this message to the test.[2]

These minors, some as young as four years old have fled the gang violence, poverty, and deplorable living conditions that plague the Central American region.[3] Now, after years of punting the question of immigration reform from one administration to another, the U.S. faces one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time.

We only need look a few hundred miles from the U.S. southern border with Mexico to come across a region that for many years has suffered continuous political and social upheaval. Inexorably, along with other factors, these conditions have produced a fertile ground where gang violence, corrupt leaders, illicit drugs, and poverty can flourish.

Currently, the Central American Region is home to the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Nicaragua comes in first place, and Honduras a close second.[4]Guatemala is not far off; in fact, over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty and 13 percent live in extreme poverty; as it stands today, over half of the children under the age of five in Guatemala are malnourished.[5]

Beyond poverty, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have one the highest murder rates in the world. In recent years, the region, known as the isthmus, has shown an upward trend in homicide rates, due in large part to gangs and organized crime group activity.[6]

Such groups engage in violent activities that are largely the result of disputes over drug trafficking routes, turf wars between groups, and conflict between the groups and the State.[7] In fact, compared to the rest of the Americas Guatemala City, Guatemala and Tegucigalpa, Honduras have the third and fifth highest city homicide rates, respectively, when compared to the national homicide rates.[8]

This is the stark reality sixty thousand undocumented children face in their home State this year when they decide to embark on the treacherous 3,000-mile journey to the U.S.[9]The journey itself is fraught with perils, which occasionally result in the death of these children.[10]

As a result of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), undocumented children who arrive alone from countries that are not contiguous with the U.S. are provided with key protections.[11]Once in the U.S., the majority of the undocumented Central American children normally enter the custody of Customs and Border Protection after turning themselves in or being captured.

The act provides that the agents must screen and transfer the undocumented child to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours.[12]  However, in 2002, Congress designed the current screening system to house about 6,000 to 8,000 children in any given year.[13]

The exodus of approximately sixty-thousand undocumented Central American children into the U.S. this year will inevitably bring the current system to a virtual breaking point.[14] As a result, undocumented children already spend weeks within the custody of the Border Patrol in what essentially resembles a jail cell. Well past the required 72-hour hold, all while agents attempt to process and hand them over to HHS.[15]

Although 8 U.S. Code § 1156 provides a means for the undocumented children to seek asylum, the overwhelmed court system and lack of legal resources will leave many of these children with an uncertain future.[16] As it stands, the current average time for a case to make its way through the immigration system stands at 516 days.[17] It is inevitable that in the coming months U.S. immigration agencies will continue to be overwhelmed, and only earnest dialogue and substantial change will begin to fix the problem.

The rhetoric many in our country express is to simply return the undocumented children, tighten the border, and increase funding. Inaction or ineptitude on the part of the U.S. will undoubtedly result in one of the largest humanitarian crisis to face our nation.

Or even worse, our national security will be jeopardized by sending back thousands of undocumented children to violence and poverty stricken states; thereby providing a fresh crop of recruits for gangs and violent groups in the region.

[1] Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, in The Oxford Book of American Poetry 184 (John Brehm ed., 2006).

[2] Katie Zezima and Ed O’Keefe, Obama Calls Web of Children Across U.S.-Mexican Border ‘Urgent Humanitarian Situation’, The Washington Post, June 2, 2014, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-calls-wave-of-children-across-us-mexican-border-urgent-humanitarian-situation/2014/06/02/4d29df5e-ea8f-11e3-93d2-edd4be1f5d9e_story.html (Noting that officials for The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families recorded the entry of 24,668 unaccompanied minors in the 2013 fiscal year, and expect the annual number will jump to nearly 60,000 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year; US Customs and Border Protection also indicate that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors is up 106 percent from the same time last year)

[3] Marco Caceres, Child Exodus From Central America: This Aint Just Immigration Anymore, Huffington Post, June 12, 2014, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marco-caceres/child-exodus-from-central_b_5500024.html.

[4] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Nicaragua Economy Overview, available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/nu.html (2013).

[5] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Guatemala Economy Overview, available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html (2013).

[6] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Global Study on Homicide, at 43, U.N. Sales No. 14.IV.1 (2013).

[7] Id at 44.

[8] Id at 150 (Noting that in recent years an increase in drug related gang activity resulted in the escalation of violence in the Isthmus. Gangs engage in behavior that is very similar to the child soldier phenomenon in African nations; where they recruit young children from an early age to become drug mules and sometimes assassins. Refusal by the children to comply with the gang’s orders usually results in death).

[9] Gustavo Palencia, Poverty, Violence Drive Central American Exodus to the US, Reuters, June 30, 2014, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/30/us-usa-immigration-centralamerica-idUSKBN0F51LS20140630 (Explaining that many villages have seen a large exodus of their populations as the migrate to the U.S. in search of new start or a brighter future.).

[10] P.J. Tobia, No Country for Lost Kids, PBS Newshour, June 20, 2014, available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/country-lost-kids/ (Describing how the undocumented children face insurmountable dangers, amongst them includes a ride atop a Mexican train referred to as “La Bestia” or The Beast. Along the ride many fall off the train after falling).

[11] William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 H.R. Res. 7311, 110th Cong. § 212(a) (2008).

[12] Id.

[13] Dara Lind, 14 Facts That Help Explain America’s Child-Migrant Crisis, Vox, July 29, 2014, available at http://www.vox.com/2014/6/16/5813406/explain-child-migrant-crisis-central-america-unaccompanied-children-immigrants-daca (Citing a report released by the Department of Health and Human Services, comparing the number of available beds in the holding facilities with the number of undocumented children actually being sent by Border Patrol).

[14] O’Keefe, supra note 2.

[15] Tobia, supra note 10.

[16] 8 U.S. Code § 1156 (West 2014).

[17] Tobia, supra note 10.

One thought on “A Call to Action: U.S. Faces Unprecedented Humanitarian Crisis

  1. Monirul

    Thanks for the link, Sarah. That was a fascinating arcilte and so true. I like the way they defined the stage of emerging adulthood’ as identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a sense of possibilities’. That’s so me! So I guess that means we’re pretty normal, huh? Good to know


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