The word on the streets of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is that children traveling alone who illegally cross the U.S. border don’t get deported back home.
It’s a line human smugglers, known as coyotes, have been telling families in Central America seeking to escape poverty and drug-fuelled gang violence, to persuade them to pay thousands of dollars to smuggle their children north to the United States.
And it’s a key reason behind the massive surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America crossing the U.S. border with Mexico since 2012, according to several U.S. senators.
"It’s a successful marketing strategy smugglers have latched onto," Republican Senator Jeff Flake told the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee this week. "For these smugglers this is a sweet gig."
So far this year, more than 52,000 children travelling alone - mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - were caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly double the number apprehended in 2012.
So are the smugglers right when they tell families in Central America their children won’t be sent back home?
Yes, according to figures cited by Democrat Senator Tim Johnson at the foreign relations committee.
He said less than 10 percent of the 174,000 children - mainly from Central America and Mexico - who entered the U.S. illegally since 2009 have been sent back home.
Because so few children end up being deported, it’s a big incentive pushing families to send their children on a dangerous overland journey to the United States, the committee heard.
Under a 2008 law, children stopped at the border (except those from Mexico or Canada) can’t be deported to their home country without an immigration hearing.
Child migrants are being housed in detention centers and temporarily at three military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma, until they are found a sponsor or guardian to look after them or are reunited with parents already living in the United States.
A heavy backlog of immigration cases means children can spend years with their families or guardians before they ever see an immigration judge and there’s little incentive for children to show up at the court hearing, the committee heard.
STEPPING UP BORDER CONTROL
When the flood of child migrants is seen primarily as a border control issue, efforts are focused on stemming the flow of children to the U.S. border. In turn, this means increasing law enforcement at the border, speeding up the deportation process, while dispelling the ‘marketing strategy’ used by smugglers.
That’s what Senator Flake and Senator John McCain are proposing in a bill, the Children Returning on an Expedited and Safe Timeline Act or CREST Act.
"This crisis will continue until the parents who paid thousands of dollars to smuggle their children north to the United States see plane-loads of them landing back at home – their money wasted," McCain said in a statement.
Other U.S. lawmakers say the spike of child migrants entering the country illegally from 2012 onwards coincides with an August 2012 law passed by the Obama government to grant "deferred action" to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living in the U.S. since 2007 and are in school or graduated or served in the military.
But human smugglers are spreading misinformation about this law.
"The word of mouth in Central America is that there is this special law that allows you to stay in the U.S.," Marco Rubio, a republican senator, told the foreign relations committee.
Yet the dramatic rise of child migrants to the United States can’t just be explained by changes in U.S. migration policy or a marketing ploy by savvy smugglers.
"Driven by a mixture of motives and circumstances, these children are seeking reunification with their parents, better life opportunities, and, in some cases, safety from violence and criminal gang activity," counselor of the U.S department of state, ambassador Thomas A. Shannon told the foreign relations Committee.
Smugglers are exploiting real fear and danger felt by parents, who fear criminal gangs or "maras", such as El Salvador’s M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs, will forcibly recruit or harm their children.
According to a U.N. refugee agency 2014 report, nearly 60 percent of the 404 children the agency interviewed said they were driven from their homes to seek refuge abroad because they faced harm from armed groups, including drug cartels, gangs, or by state security forces or abuse at thome.
In Honduras, one of the world’s most violent countries, gangs are tightening their grip over entire neighourhoods, increasingly targeting children and recruiting them, says Maria Auxiliadora Lopez, a researcher and migration expert at the Institute of Economic and Social Research in Honduras, part of the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Lopez points to the hardline government of Juan Orlando Hernandez, who came to power this year, promising a crack down on gang violence.
"The gangs are feeling the pressure from the government and they’ve stepped up their recruitment of children to carry on with their criminal activities and drug smuggling," Lopez, a Honduran, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In northern Honduras and San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city and murder capital of the world, there are ghost towns as people have left en masse. "Many parents feel they have no choice but to send their children to the U.S. to save their lives. People don’t feel safe. If they return they fear reappraisals from gangs," Lopez said.