Why Immigrant Parents Need Legal Protections for Their Children

“I don’t want them here, but I had no choice.”

Margaret explained how her two teenaged children traveled alone in early 2014 to the United States from Honduras with the aid of coyotes, or smugglers.

As a single mother faced with little economic opportunity in Honduras, Margaret (who is identified by a pseudonym in this article to protect her privacy) left her two children with her parents in 2006 to find work in the US.

For eight years, Margaret worked without official papers as a nanny, regularly sending money home to provide a middle-class life for her family.

But when gang members in Honduras attacked her son and daughter in 2014, Margaret’s parents hired smugglers to bring her children to her in the US. On the trip, the children endured long periods without food or water, were forcibly separated from family members during a kidnapping attempt by smugglers and walked many miles to reach the border, only to be arrested and detained after arriving in the US.

Both of Margaret’s children were eventually released from detention and are now fighting to remain in the US with their mother and avoid removal to a country where they fear death.

As an attorney for unaccompanied immigrant children in Chicago, I have heard stories like this one many times. In making the decision to send their children to the US, parents are weighing the probability of grave harm (such as death threats for refusal to join a gang) versus the possibility of serious harms (including robbery and sexual assault at the hands of smugglers).

They send their children anyway to escape the violence of their native home, considering that a chance at a life of safety in the US is worth the risk of getting here.

The US Supreme Court deadlock this week left in place the Fifth Circuit decision affirming a Texas lower court’s injunction against President Obama’s executive action program on immigration.

The 4-4 vote means the program that would have allowed more than 4 million immigrants to remain in the US continues to be blocked.

“We’re going to have to decide whether we’re a people who accept the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or whether we actually value families and keep them together for the sake of all of our communities,” President Obama said in response.

Many of the unaccompanied children crossing our borders are coming to reunite with family members. The administration’s renewed deportation raids will also force us to reflect on whether we are demonstrating respect for the sanctity of all families.

Between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015, US Border Patrol apprehended about 40,000 unaccompanied children attempting to cross the southwest border. Recently released numbers show that border patrol agents had already apprehended close to 33,000 children between October 2015 and April 2016.

In December 2015 alone, nearly 7,000 children were apprehended as compared to only about 3,000 the previous year. The numbers of adults with children also referred to as family units were also on the rise.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security, towards end of 2015, conducted deportation raids aimed primarily at family units who had crossed the border after May 2014. These raids resulted in 121 arrests in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, but spread fear throughout immigrant communities nationwide.

Many of the unaccompanied children crossing our borders are coming to reunite with family members.

In December and January, I received numerous calls from clients with pending immigration cases petrified that they too would be arrested as part of the raids.

January and February posted lower numbers of unaccompanied children and family units, but by March the numbers had already started to climb. By April, news outlets were reporting that the numbers of unaccompanied minors were approaching 2014 “surge” levels.

In May, journalists revealed Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans for another round of raids to deter unaccompanied minors and family units from crossing the border.

That same month, US Customs and Border Protection launched a public awareness campaign, including video testimonials from Central American migrants on the dangers encountered on the journey to the US. The video testimonials are meant to spread the news about how dangerous the journey to the US truly is.

The young Central American mother featured in the first video describes encountering sexual abuse on her journey and traveling in tractor-trailer boxes unable to breathe. The message is clear from both the video and the raids: Don’t risk your children’s lives; we won’t let them stay.

These efforts appear sound at first glance. Who can argue with policy measures designed to save lives, especially the lives of children?

The deterrence measures, however, fail to acknowledge that parents, like Margaret, who send their children to the US are actually doing so to save their lives.

The Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala consistently rank as some of the most violent countries in the world. Last year, El Salvador overtook Honduras as the country with the highest homicide rate, a position Honduras held for several years. Gang violence is rampant in the Northern Triangle countries and victims of violence, many of whom are children, have little to no legal recourse.

A recent study found that Hondurans are aware of US deportation policies and the dangers involved in coming to the US. This knowledge, nevertheless, did not deter them from making plans to come to the US. The study found instead that intentions to migrate nearly doubled for individuals who reported that they had been a victim of crime more than once in the previous 12 months.

Parents will continue to send their children across the border as long as the risks their children face are greater and more probable than the risks encountered on the journey.

Raids and deportations are not the answer. There is another way to approach this humanitarian crisis that accounts for the “push factors” that compel younger and more vulnerable migrants to make the dangerous journey to the United States.

In November 2014, the US Department of State and the US Department of Homeland Security announced the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program. It was intended to provide “a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States.”

This program allows parents who are lawfully present in the US to bring their children to the US through the US Refugee Admissions Program. Parents can also apply for permission to bring those children deemed ineligible for refugee admission but still at risk of harm.

The CAM program is an acknowledgement that many of the children fleeing Central America are more akin to refugees than economic migrants.

The deterrence measures fail to acknowledge that parents who send their children to the US are actually doing so to save their lives.

Yet, very few children have been processed through this program due to long in-country processing times and the unnecessary requirement that parents be lawfully present in the US before they can apply for their children. As of April 2016, only 162 of the 7,000 CAM applicants had entered the US.

To reduce the dangers faced by Central American children who are trying to cross the border, officials can rework and expand the CAM program so it can carry out its stated goals of providing a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the treacherous journey many children endure.

The first step can be to eliminate the lawful presence requirement for parents.

According to Department of Homeland Security data analyzed by the Congressional Research Service, a majority of Central Americans in the US are not lawfully present. Punishing children for their parents’ mistakes seems especially punitive. If children qualify as refugees or are in danger of being harmed, the immigration status of their parents should be irrelevant.

As reflected in our asylum laws, the US is obligated to protect individuals who have been harmed or fear harm in their home country regardless of how they entered the US. Immigration policies directed at the Central American migrants should reflect our obligation to protect individuals fleeing violence.

It is a gamble for a parent to send a child to the US, betting that the future prospects outweigh the risks. But if a child does not win a future here, everyone loses.