Young detainees from Central America often sleep in holding cells. This U.S. Customs facility is in Brownsville, Texas.

Eric Gay • Associated Press pool,

Q and A on what happens to children from Central America who cross the border

  • Article by: Cindy Carcamo Los Angeles Times
  • June 22, 2014 - 9:14 PM


– As a crush of unaccompanied Central American children illegally enters the United States, politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle are increasingly weighing in on what should be done.

Shelters established for unaccompanied children are overflowing — news reports have featured photographs of facilities crammed with youngsters.

Some critics of the Obama administration have asked why the children can’t be returned to their home countries quickly. Legal restrictions, however, make the process complicated. With so much noise and political posturing, misperceptions abound. Here are answers to some basic questions:


Q: Where are these children coming from?

A: It used to be that most of the children who entered the U.S. alone and illegally came from Mexico. That changed in fiscal year 2013 when more Central American children — nearly 21,000 from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — entered the country illegally. A little more than 17,000 originated from Mexico.

Through May, 34,611 were from Central America and 11,577 from Mexico. In fact, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children has decreased in the last few years.


Q: Why are they coming to the United States?

A: Although there has always been crushing poverty in Central America, violence in the region has escalated again in recent years after a period of relative political stability. For example, Honduras has the most murders per capita of any country.

Drug cartels and gangs are at the root of the increased violence. Some of these children are fleeing gang initiations.

But not all the children fleeing the region are arriving in the U.S. They are also looking for refuge in Mexico and other nations, such as Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Meanwhile, false rumors are circulating throughout Central America that the U.S. is giving families and children traveling solo documents to permanently reside in the U.S.


Q: Why can’t these children be deported right away?

A: Under U.S. immigration law, Mexican or Canadian children who enter illegally and alone can be returned immediately. However, children from elsewhere cannot be removed immediately and must first be taken into U.S. custody.


Q: What happens to the Central American children?

A: According to immigration law, the Department of Homeland Security can only keep children who aren’t from Mexico or Canada in custody for a maximum of 72 hours.

The children are screened and then must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in temporary shelters. The children then become wards of the federal government. Meanwhile, Office of Refugee Resettlement officials are required to “act in the best interest of the child,” which often means reuniting the child with a parent or relative living in the U.S. Others are placed in foster care.

An estimated 65 percent are placed with a sponsor — usually a family member. The federal government has reported that the number may be higher — somewhere between 85 percent to 90 percent.


Q: Does that mean all these Central American children are allowed to stay indefinitely after they reunite with family?

A: No. From the time an unaccompanied child is taken into immigration custody, he or she is under removal ­proceedings.

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