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Unaccompanied Minors: A Growing Crisis

In recent weeks, the media has been a-flurry with reports of the recent and troubling surge of unaccompanied minors bursting the banks of the Rio Grande and into the United States. Unaccompanied minors are children who have crossed the border into the...
June 12, 2014, 4:17pm

Photo by Matt Black

In recent weeks, the media has been a-flurry with reports of the recent and troubling surge of unaccompanied minors bursting the banks of the Rio Grande and into the United States. Unaccompanied minors—what Border Patrol and ICE agents officially term as "Unaccompanied Alien Children" and, unofficially, as "juvies"—are children who have crossed the border into the United States without papers, parents, or guardians.

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Minors like 17-year-old Ernesto, from Honduras, whom I wrote about in VICE's March issue, come to the United States for a mix of reasons, but are often fleeing violence and extreme poverty at home. Community violence in Central America seems to be getting worse each day, and we see this in the numbers: Though approximately 6,500 unaccompanied minors like Ernesto were taken into custody each year from 2004 to 2011, 2012 saw an unprecedented spike: 12,000 came that year. In 2013, that number rose to over 30,000—and this fiscal year, we've already seen 47,000 youths cross into the United States, a number that threatens to topple the already astronomical fiscal year projection of 60,000 apprehensions before September 30 of this year.

It's hard to ignore numbers like these. The New York Times ran this story about the recent massive influx of unaccompanied minors and the challenge of finding places to put them. Kids are being temporarily housed in makeshift shelters, and are sometimes packed like sardines in temporary holding facilities while waiting to be transferred to a shelter. NPR has covered the frantic rush to house minors in Arizona at a former air force base, as well as this concise interview with Dallas-based journalist on exactly why children are coming: most often due to gang violence and extreme poverty.

Mother Jones ran an in-depth feature on the unaccompanied-minor crisis, focusing on a gay teen’s treacherous journey from Guatemala to San Francisco. Just this week, the New York Times ran another story about a progressive change in legal access for unaccompanied minors: Children under 16 (a slice of the population that unfortunately will not include Ernesto—nor the majority of unaccompanied minors) will be provided with free legal counsel so they do not have to stand before the judge and plead their case alone.

Last week, Obama himself spoke out about unaccompanied minors, calling the influx an "urgent humanitarian situation" and urging Congress to authorize additional funds for the care and housing of newly apprehended minors. Meanwhile, as the Times reports, the US government is coordinating with Central American governments to launch information campaigns on the perils of the journey north to dissuade families from sending their children. It remains to be seen whether this is a stoppable flood.

For his part, Ernesto—the subject of my VICE piece—is still working the fields in California and waiting for his court date, which isn't until June of 2015 due to the backlog of cases in the San Francisco immigration court. He is still vaguely searching for a lawyer, and still living in Mendota with his four Honduran cousins—the eldest of whom is now 22—all of whom arrived as unaccompanied minors in the past three years. Their garage is converted into a drafty living space stacked with beds, a mini fridge, and burner against the back wall, clotheslines crisscrossing the room. Four Guatemalan young men, two of whom are also unaccompanied minors, also live there.

All the young people in this Mendota home are working the fields in the Central Valley—its own humanitarian emergency, due to the extreme drought conditions that threaten the livelihoods of growers and farmworkers like Ernesto and the thousands of other unaccompanied-minor farmworkers speckled silently throughout the state. Ernesto is still worried about his court case, but that's the far future. For now, he's hoping that this summer there will still be a job for him hoisting melons from the desiccating fields—it's easier not to think about the fact that he needs a lawyer, or the threat of being sent home.

In the wake of all this reporting on the unaccompanied minor crisis, we’d like to remind readers to revisit VICE’s feature about Ernesto's long, deadly journey from Honduras to the US, and the dangers he still faces. Read “The Lost Boys of California” here.