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In 2014 there has been a pick in the number of children trying to cross the US-Mexico border. This has provoked heated debates on the relevance on a human rights framework when looking at migrations from South to North America.
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Child migrants to the US
Irregular migration of unaccompanied minors to the US is not a new phenomenon. Minors, coming chiefly from Central America (with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, to a lesser extent, Mexico being the most represented countries of origin) have always tried in the tens of thousands to cross the border and enter the United States: in 2009, the US border officials came across around 19.000 of them.
Yet in recent years the number of minors crossing irregularly into the US, or at least attempting to do so, skyrocketed. The just mentioned figure of 19.000 unaccompanied minors more than doubled in only 5 years: in the 9 months preceding July 2014, around 52.000 were identified by the US border officials.
The reasons of the surge are likely linked to the increasing violence plaguing Central American countries such as the above mentioned Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala: in recent years (following the American financial crisis of 2008) the number of irregular migrants (of all ages) coming from such countries steadily increased, while the flow of Mexican migrants decreased. Economic instability and the low living conditions of central America do play a role as well: as it often happen with migration flows, it is hard to neatly separate economic migrants from people fleeing persecution, that might or might not take the forms mandated by the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Migrants who wish to cross into the US usually rely on smugglers, who are generally linked to drug gangs; their journeys are long, dangerous and expensive, even more so for unaccompanied children and teenagers, who experience a greater level of vulnerability.
And their ordeal does not stop once they reach the US. If apprehended, unaccompanied children are taken to border patrol facilities, where they undergo basic background and medical screenings. Then, their ways part, depending on the country of origin and on whether or not they are entitled to apply for a form of protection.
Minors coming from Mexico (and Canada) are usually swiftly deported back to their country of origin, unless they have a possible asylum claim or are at risk of being human trafficking victims. Children coming from countries that do not share a border with the US are taken in charge by the ORR (office of refugee resettlement) and are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge. A hearing is granted also to those (regardless of the country of origin) applying for asylum on the ground of having a "credible fear" of being persecuted or tortured in their country of origin, should they be sent back, but only after an asylum officer determined the validity of the claim.
It is important to note that very few of these migrants qualify for public defense: therefore, they rely on ONGs and charities for legal assistance.
Pending the examination of their case, which may take years, children are either accommodated in US military bases or hosted by family members already in the US. But they can also be detained - depending on what "Ice" (the agency charged with this tasks) decides.
In the wake of this emergency, the political debate has been polarized around two different positions: enforcement or humanitarian response. While most Republicans understand migration as a matter of law enforcement, and call for stronger policies in the hope of discouraging migrants from crossing, the Obama administration, at least up until 2014, defined the phenomenon as a "humanitarian crisis", and believed that it could only be solved in the framework of a comprehensive immigration reform.
As for my personal position, I second the opinion that considers migration (in particular this kind of migration, where people move in good part because they fear for their safety) as a humanitarian matter. Therefore, I believe that looking at the phenomenon through the lens of a human rights framework would reduce the risk of jeopardizing people's safety, especially when children are concerned (as I mentioned before, children are generally more vulnerable than adults - though gender has a role in that as well). I do not know American internal legislation well, and unfortunately the US is not a part to the CRC (Convention on the Right of the Children), and has only ratified the 1967 protocol on the Status of Refugees, and not the 1951 Geneva Convention, so from an international point of view they do not have certain obligations that might guide their internal legislation.
As for the steps taken so far, while it is certainly positive that irregular migrants are allowed to lay asylum claims, it must be noted that not having free access to legal assistance jeopardizes their chances to have their claims accepted. Also, detention for migrants is highly problematic, even more so when minors are detained: migrants whose asylum claim is pending examinations are not criminal, and should not be treated as such.