Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Child and Family Migration Surge of Summer 2014: A Short-Lived Crisis with a Lasting Impact

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Child and Family Migration Surge of Summer 2014: A Short-Lived Crisis with a Lasting Impact

Article excerpt

In the summer months of 2014, a surge in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and family units from Central America arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border precipitated a crisis for the U.S. government and a firestorm in political and media circles. In recent years, no issue in regional migration (involving the United States, Mexico, and Central America) has attracted this level of red-hot attention and controversy. This article will first examine the numbers--and the trends--of the migration of unaccompanied children prior to and in the wake of this summer's crisis. It will explore the complex set of push and pull factors responsible for the surge, including security concerns in Central America, structural economic dynamics in the region, the desire for family reunification, U.S. immigration policies that mandate special treatment of child migrants, and the role of smuggling networks. It will survey the policy responses of the governments of the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the surge--and their impacts. Further, it will examine the ramifications of the child migration influx at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States, as well as the effects of the crisis on the broader political immigration debate in the United States. Lastly, the article will offer recommendations on how to better respond to child migration--both in the short term and on an ongoing, long-term basis.


In recent years, the specter of thousands of children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge after perilous journeys from their homes has presented both a strong humanitarian response and a complex set of public policy challenges in the United States. But this phenomenon has never received as much attention as it did in the spring and summer of 2014.

In fiscal year (FY) 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol took into custody, or "apprehended," almost 69,000 unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border, up from approximately 39,000 in FY 2013, about 24,000 in FY 2012, and an annual average of 18,000 between 2009 and 2011. (1) This influx was mirrored by an even

more dramatic spike in apprehensions of adults traveling with children, or "family units," from about 15,000 in FY 2013 to more than 68,000 last year, a staggering 361 percent increase. (2) It was clear by the early months of 2014 that child and family arrivals were abnormally high, but in May--when apprehensions borderwide typically begin to fall--the numbers instead surged upward. At the peak of the crisis in June 2014, the Border Patrol apprehended 10,622 children and 16,329 families, compared to 4,845 and 3,282 in February, respectively. (3)

An unaccompanied child under U.S. law is defined as someone who is under the age of eighteen, has no lawful immigration status in the United States, and does not have a parent or legal guardian in the United States available to care for him or her or provide physical custody. (4) Historically, they have been predominantly from Mexico. However, the 2014 surge was driven entirely by nationals of the three Central American northern triangle countries--Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras--while the number of apprehensions from Mexico and all other countries remained essentially unchanged from prior years. (5) Together, the northern triangle countries accounted for over 75 percent of all unaccompanied children and 90 percent of family unit arrivals in 2014. (6)

Furthermore, in years past, the majority of unaccompanied children have been teenage males between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. (7) But for several years, the share of females and younger children among this population has been rising. In 2014, 34 percent of unaccompanied children held in U.S. custody were female, up from 27 percent in 2013, 23 percent in 2012, and an estimated 15 percent in the early 1990s. (8) The share of children under the age of fourteen stood at 27 percent in 2014, an increase from 24 percent in 2013 and 17 percent in 2012. …

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