By Contributor Isabel Blum 


Fast facts: 


  • Contrary to popular belief, recorded numbers of Mexican unauthorized immigrants has declined since 2007.
  • Estimates of the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US vary, with the Department of Homeland Security putting the number at 12 million as of January 2015, Pew Research Center estimating 10.7 million in 2016, and MIT and Yale professors estimating 22.1 million as of September 2018


Apprehensions on US-Mexico border in 2019, combined ports of entry:

Helpful acronyms: 

CBP: Customs and Border Protection

DHS: Department of Homeland Security

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

NT: Northern Triangle (consists of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras)

ORR: Office of Refugee Resettlement

UAC: Unaccompanied Child Migrant

USCIS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services


Around the world, economic, political, and social strife drive unaccompanied child migrants (UACs) from their homes, who arrive either lawfully or unlawfully to the destination countries in which they seek refuge. Regardless of the threat of apprehension, fear of leaving their families, and dangers of the journey, thousands of children and parents each year decide that the gains of migration outweigh the costs. Experts estimate that over 500,000 immigrant youth arrive in the US each year, forcing law enforcement to constantly adapt border policy.

UACs amplify the uncertainty surrounding best practice policies and threaten how nations approach the idea of the traditional family. As demonstrated by recent public furor over the conditions of migrant detention centers, the United States and other nations rarely offer domestic child welfare protocols upon arrival at the border. To law enforcement, unaccompanied child migrants are a sign of broken homes and are presumed to be unmotivated or uneducated. Tied into this is the often race-based assumption that these children are affiliated with crime, gang violence, and poverty. 

It is for these reasons that children are often the catalysts of familial migration out of the Northern Triangle of Central America, which consists of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They intensify their parents’ desire for a safer life, as well as access to jobs and education. In El Salvador, young girls are faced with the prospect of sexual violence and trafficking, while young boys fear recruitment into gangs.

Honduras is no better. From 1998 to 2002, the police, in a government-sponsored campaign, murdered over 1,500 youths, mostly young males, due to their alleged involvement with gang violence. This social cleansing stains the memories of young boys in Honduras. Many flee to escape recruitment into gangs and subsequent persecution by the government.

Half of the children who migrated to the US during 2018 are from Guatemala. Recent attempts to reform the country’s legal system failed to solve issues of organized crime, drug trafficking, and illegal adoptions developing from the country’s 40-year civil war (1960-1996).

Despite democratic movements in Central America, leaders have failed to manage, and in some cases have become complicit in, gang violence, drug trafficking, extreme poverty, and homelessness, the “push factors” that spur migration. For example, in El Salvador, the past three presidents have been accused of corruption and attempting to collaborate with the police force and criminal groups to concentrate wealth amongst the elite. The situation has escalated so quickly that UN High Commissioner for Refugees deemed the high levels of migration out of the Northern triangle a humanitarian crisis. Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama saw a 435% increase in recent years of asylum applications from individuals born in the Northern Triangle. In the United States, since 2017, the number of asylum seekers deemed to have “claims of credible fear” at the border increased by 67.2% to 92,959 asylum seekers in 2018


By the Numbers: Arrivals of Unaccompanied Minors to the United States in fiscal year 2018 

(October 1 – September 30): 

Total: 49,100 UACs referred to Office of Refugee Resettlement by Department of Homeland Security

26% from Honduras

54% from Guatemala

12% from El Salvador

3% from Mexico

<5% all other countries

71% are boys, 29% are girls

37% are between 15-16 years old


The apprehension of innocent child migrants in American and Mexican detention centers, the two most popular target countries of migrants, directly stems from the international crackdown on the trafficking of drugs, illegal migration, and fear of terrorist threats. Since the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001, US spending on immigration enforcement has increased exponentially, reaching $18 billion in 2012. Increased spending facilitated the militarization of borders and, amid President Trump’s crusade to “Make America Great Again,” the imminent threat of a wall at the US-Mexico Border. 

The US government has neglected its responsibility to protect migrant children arriving at its borders by refusing to recognize gang-related drug wars in the Northern Triangle as a crisis worthy of refugee status. Additionally, migrant children often lack the agency or knowledge to advocate for themselves without the help of lawyers, forcing them into dangerous situations for self-defense. Too often the international community disregards the norm of “innocent until proven guilty” and treats UACs as inherently illegal. 

The criminalization of migrant youth prevents children from attaining the care and legal advice which they desperately need, blocking them from winning court cases and ultimately remaining in the US. After a child loses in court, deportation ensues. The US and Mexico treat the deportation of UACs as repatriation, a method of “reuniting” children with their families, although this is often far from reality. In practice, the method of deportation of child migrants carries drastic effects: they are frequently rejected from their communities, targeted by gangs, or marked as opponents of the government upon arrival at home.

Efforts to reduce the negative consequences of repatriation are a top priority for Central American countries, but, without the assistance of the United States, a peaceful transition may not yet be feasible. As the race to the White House progresses, all eyes are on the Democratic candidates and their responses to the migrant crisis – how will executive power be used to improve the lives of thousands of children making the trek to the United States?