Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Unaccompanied Alien Children: Potential Factors Contributing to Recent Immigration *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Unaccompanied Alien Children: Potential Factors Contributing to Recent Immigration *

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the past several years, and in the past year in particular, the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC)1 seeking to enter the United States along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged to unusually high levels. This surge is driven overwhelmingly by migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Congress has expressed increasing concerns over this situation because of its implications for border security and U.S. immigration policy. Because the surge has occurred recently, and because few sources of data exist to accurately measure the characteristics and motives of these unaccompanied children, immigration observers have advanced a range of explanations for the surge.

The report is not intended to be an exhaustive review of all factors that potentially underlie the recent surge in unaccompanied children. Rather, it discusses major possible contributing factors that have been widely cited in published reports. It also emphasizes factors that may account for the recent surge in unaccompanied children, but not long-standing causes, such as wage and earnings differentials between other countries and the United States. The report distinguishes what are often referred to as "push" and "pull" factors2 associated with the recent surge. Push factors in this case refer to forces that originate in migrant origin countries which encourage children to emigrate to other countries. Pull factors refer to elements that originate in the United States and encourage children to migrate specifically to this country.

The analytic dichotomy between push and pull factors often blurs in actual circumstances. For example, family reunification may occur after a parent from an origin country secures employment in the United States. Yet, having an employed parent in the United States may easily make a child in an origin country more susceptible to extortion or kidnapping by criminal gangs, which in turn, may motivate the child to migrate to the United States. Hence, having an employed parent in the United States ostensibly acts as a "pull" factor while the threat of violence acts as a "push" factor, but in this example, the latter would not occur without the former.

Migration to another country stems not only from macro-level circumstances such as violence and economic hardship but also personal circumstances and characteristics, such as marital status and risk tolerance. Most children have multiple motives, and how those motives influence their decisions to migrate depend on a range of factors that cannot be measured easily.

This report begins by describing the recent surge in unaccompanied child apprehensions. It discusses several factors widely associated with outmigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, three countries accounting for much of the recent surge of unaccompanied child migrants. These factors include economic conditions and poverty, crime and violence, and conditions related to the migration transit zone between Central America and the United States. The report then discusses three broad factors that may be attracting migrants to the United States: economic and educational opportunity, family reunification, and U.S. immigration policies. It concludes with caveats on the attribution of causes to this situation.

Background3

Unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are defined in statute as aliens4 under age 18, who lack lawful immigration status in the United States, and who are without a parent or legal guardian in the United States or lack a parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody.5 They typically arrive at U.S. ports of entry or are apprehended along the southwestern border with Mexico. Less frequently they are apprehended in the interior and determined to be a juvenile6 and unaccompanied.7 Most of these children are aged 14 or older.

The number of unaccompanied children has increased in the past six years and has surged in this current year. …

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