Maxwell panel discusses causes and effects of recent surge in unaccompanied minors

Ambassadors from El Salvador and Guatemala were among the expert panelists.

As the country remains divided on whether to send these fleeing children back to their Central American homes or not, President Barack Obama’s stance on the unaccompanied minors situation has become his Achilles' heel.

This was the topic of discussion at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Monday afternoon, where several policy makers, diplomats, and students assembled to discuss the causes and implications of a markedly rising number of juveniles crossing the U.S. border from the violence-stricken countries of El Salvador and Guatemala. Ambassador Francisco Altschul from El Salvador and Ambassador Julio Ligorria from Guatemala were among the panelists who explained the reasons behind the influx and possible measures that can help prevent it.

Altschul, of El Salvador, said that children who cross the borders tend to be from rural areas where the majority of the population lives in extremely impoverished conditions. Parents are forced to send their children across the border so that the children can have a chance of living a better life.

“We need to urge these people to stop risking lives of their kids,” he said.

Conditions have worsened as these children now face an “epidemic level of violence” in their home countries in Central America, Altschul said. “The steep rise in the number of homicides has led to heightened perception of insecurity and fear in them.”

Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, then pointed out the flaws in the immigration judicial system.

Since fear of violence is not a valid premise for these children to be able to cross borders, he said, they are not able to get a valid legal status to stay in the United States. They land in detention centers to be deported, or they have to join a waitlist for a case hearing. The waitlist is a minimum of two years in most cases.

“Half of these kids do not have an attorney, and there’s no government support for the legal counsel. The system lacks adequate funding to operate effectively. There is no federal funding available for their upkeep. Many of them do not speak English and need medical attention. These children solely rely on the local communities for help,” Rosenblum said.

Altschul emphasized the importance of having a common goal and sharing responsibility with the U.S. government to protect these children. “We should strengthen our consulates at the border and make sure that people who are trying to cross the border are treated with dignity and humanity,” he said. “Also, they should get appropriate medical, psychological and legal attention needed.”

Rosenblum added, “The goal of immigration policy is to protect vulnerable populations. But, the other goal is to be able to prevent unauthorized people from entering the U.S. soil.” The real challenge, however, is to make these two goals work in tangent, he said.

The panel said there are a few measures being taken that might help the cause.

Rosenblum said the U.S. government is considering launching a “Limited Refugee Program,” a pilot project in which young people will be able to apply for a valid immigration status from their home country in Central America, eliminating the need for them to cross the U.S. border illegally.

The Central American governments are also taking extra care of their children by making sure that they don’t end up in streets, which makes them vulnerable to the local gangs. Altschul said the El Salvador government is actively engaging children in schools for longer hours through extracurricular activities, for example.

The fate of these unaccompanied minors currently rests on Obama's decision about passing an executive order to help them stay in the U.S. with a temporary legal status. 

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