The child and family migration surge of summer 2014: a short-lived crisis with a lasting impact.

AuthorChishti, Muzaffar
PositionChild Migration

In the summer months of 2014, a surge in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and family units from Central America arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border precipitated a crisis for the U.S. government and a firestorm in political and media circles. In recent years, no issue in regional migration (involving the United States, Mexico, and Central America) has attracted this level of red-hot attention and controversy. This article will first examine the numbers--and the trends--of the migration of unaccompanied children prior to and in the wake of this summer's crisis. It will explore the complex set of push and pull factors responsible for the surge, including security concerns in Central America, structural economic dynamics in the region, the desire for family reunification, U.S. immigration policies that mandate special treatment of child migrants, and the role of smuggling networks. It will survey the policy responses of the governments of the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the surge--and their impacts. Further, it will examine the ramifications of the child migration influx at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States, as well as the effects of the crisis on the broader political immigration debate in the United States. Lastly, the article will offer recommendations on how to better respond to child migration--both in the short term and on an ongoing, long-term basis.


In recent years, the specter of thousands of children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge after perilous journeys from their homes has presented both a strong humanitarian response and a complex set of public policy challenges in the United States. But this phenomenon has never received as much attention as it did in the spring and summer of 2014.

In fiscal year (FY) 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol took into custody, or "apprehended," almost 69,000 unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, up from approximately 39,000 in FY 2013, about 24,000 in FY 2012, and an annual average of 18,000 between 2009 and 2011. (1) This influx was mirrored by an even

more dramatic spike in apprehensions of adults traveling with children, or "family units," from about 15,000 in FY 2013 to more than 68,000 last year, a staggering 361 percent increase. (2) It was clear by the early months of 2014 that child and family arrivals were abnormally high, but in May--when apprehensions borderwide typically begin to fall--the numbers instead surged upward. At the peak of the crisis in June 2014, the Border Patrol apprehended 10,622 children and 16,329 families, compared to 4,845 and 3,282 in February, respectively. (3)

An unaccompanied child under U.S. law is defined as someone who is under the age of eighteen, has no lawful immigration status in the United States, and does not have a parent or legal guardian in the United States available to care for him or her or provide physical custody. (4) Historically, they have been predominantly from Mexico. However, the 2014 surge was driven entirely by nationals of the three Central American northern triangle countries--Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras--while the number of apprehensions from Mexico and all other countries remained essentially unchanged from prior years. (5) Together, the northern triangle countries accounted for over 75 percent of all unaccompanied children and 90 percent of family unit arrivals in 2014. (6)

Furthermore, in years past, the majority of unaccompanied children have been teenage males between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. (7) But for several years, the share of females and younger children among this population has been rising. In 2014, 34 percent of unaccompanied children held in U.S. custody were female, up from 27 percent in 2013, 23 percent in 2012, and an estimated 15 percent in the early 1990s. (8) The share of children under the age of fourteen stood at 27 percent in 2014, an increase from 24 percent in 2013 and 17 percent in 2012. (9)

The 2014 surge was also unique because of where and how the majority of children and families arrived in the United States. Almost three-fourths entered near the city of McAllen, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley region, the easternmost part of the U.S.-Mexico border. (10) The area has become a popular crossing point only in the last two years, as it is geographically closest to Central America and is the endpoint of several railroads--frequently ridden by stowaway migrants and known colloquially as La Bestia (The Beast)--that span Mexico from south to north. (11) Additionally, unlike all other border crossers, and for reasons described later in this article, most of the children and families did not attempt to avoid Border Patrol detection when they reached U.S. soil; most surrendered voluntarily. (12)


Many deep-rooted causes are responsible for the push and pull factors that paved the way for this unique migration surge during the spring and summer of 2014. While there is little consensus about which of these factors were more significant, it is apparent that migrants' motivations to leave home during the crisis were exceptionally strong. Tens of thousands risked passage north, despite well-known and extremely grave dangers, including trafficking, robbery, sexual assault, and exploitation by smugglers, traffickers, gangs, cartels, and even government authorities. (13)

Security and Violence. The first push factor is violence and insecurity in Central America, where, according to the U.S. Department of State, increasingly powerful gangs and organized crime have led to high rates of homicide, drug and human trafficking, and gender-based violence. (14) Indeed, some of the world's highest national homicide rates are found in Honduras (the world's highest at 90.4 per 100,000 people), El Salvador (41.2 per 100,000), and Guatemala (39.9 per 100,000), compared to the global average of 6.2 per 100,000. More than one in seven of all homicide victims globally is a young male between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine living in the Americas. (15) According to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) study based on interviews with more than 400 unaccompanied children in the United States, 48 percent had experienced violence or threats by organized crime groups, including gangs or drug cartels, or by state actors in their home countries. (16)

Economic deprivation. Structural economic disparities between the United States and its southern neighbors present a second set of powerful push and pull factors that have long been key drivers of regional migration dynamics. As of 2012, 62 percent of Guatemalans, 56 percent of Hondurans, and 35 percent of Salvadorans lived in poverty, earning no more than the U.S. equivalent of $4 per day. (17) About one in four Central American young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four are neither employed nor enrolled in school. (18) For youth facing such economic hardship and lack of opportunity, relocation to the United States for the possibility of earning the current $7.25 per hour minimum wage can be an extremely attractive proposition.

Family reunification. For the 11.6 million Mexican immigrants, 1.25 million Salvadorans, 902,000 Guatemalans, and 534,000 Hondurans living in the United States as of 2013, the desire to be united with their children abroad is compelling. (19) Many of these immigrants arrived more than a decade ago and have settled into communities throughout the United States, but left behind young children when they emigrated. However, since a majority of these immigrants are unauthorized, they are ineligible to sponsor family members for immigration under U.S. law. (20) Even though a subset of this population--212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans--have been residing in the United States for fifteen years or more under grants of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and are not technically unauthorized, they, too, are ineligible for family-based immigration benefits. (21) As a result, longing for family unity but lacking an avenue to migrate legally, many binational families have resorted to illegally crossing the border to reunite. In UNHCR's survey of unaccompanied children, about half of children from El Salvador and Honduras and about one-quarter from Guatemala and Mexico said they had at least one parent in the United States. (22) Recent research has also found that a child's migration is strongly tied to his or her parents' migration histories (and is virtually nonexistent when parents have not been to the United States), and the UAC surge has resulted from widespread migration networks between the United States and immigrants' home countries. (23)

Although family separation has long been a root cause of child migration, it is possible that a highly publicized (albeit failed) debate in 2013 and 2014 in the U.S. Congress over comprehensive immigration reform legislation magnified the saliency of this factor. One possibility is that families had been postponing reunification in hopes that immigration reform would provide them with an opportunity to do so legally, but when this effort failed, they chose to cross the border illegally. A second possibility is that some were attempting to reach the United States before legislation passed, in hopes that they would be included in a legalization program.

U.S. Immigration Policies. Several policies that mandate unique treatment of children and families by U.S. immigration officials also contributed to the migrant surge. First, in a significant victory for human rights organizations and children's advocates, Congress in 2008 passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) to protect unaccompanied children from human trafficking. (24) Under TVPRA, Central American unaccompanied minors who arrive at the U.S. border may not be immediately deported. (25) Instead, they are given...

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