Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House domestic policy council, said this week that a possible explanation for the increased numbers of children arriving at the border without adults is that tales are spreading throughout Central America and Mexico that children will not be deported from the United States and that the push for immigration reform has changed the rules.
"We have heard rumors and reports or suggestions that the increase may be in response to the perception that children may be allowed to stay or that immigration reform may in some ways benefit these children,” Munoz said.
News reports from Central America and the U.S.-Mexico border say that many there believe federal policy on minors trying to cross the border without adults has changed and they are allowed stay in the United States and be reunited with family members without the possibility of deportation. In reality, children stay in a federal facility for 30 to 45 days after being apprehended and are released to a parent, family member or sponsor, but that doesn't stop deportation proceedings if deemed appropriate.
John Podesta, a counselor to President Obama, said Friday that children coming from a country that does not border the United States must be put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Children from Mexico who are caught at the border are immediately turned back.
Authorities said they have never seen so many unaccompanied children at the border before and are having trouble handling the situation. From Oct. 1, 2013, to May 31, 2014, 47,017 unaccompanied children were apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border, a 92 percent increase over last year. The largest number of children were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and authorities expect the number to jump to at least 60,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
In fact, Munoz said, the wave of children started in 2011, before the push for comprehensive immigration reform. But rumor can, and has, played a powerful role in communities where people are desperate to leave. In 2010, at least 150 Haitians living in Canada tried, under cover of night, to slip over the border and navigate the dairy pastures and dense forest of northern Vermont. Most were previously deported from the United States, sought asylum in Canada and wanted to return to the United States. One of the main drivers of the influx was rumors in Canada that all Haitians would be welcome back into the United States after an earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010. In reality, the United States put an 18-month moratorium on deporting Haitians already in the United States on the day of the earthquake. Haitians who crossed the border after were put into removal proceedings.
But the role of rumors spurring young children to head to the U.S. border alone is murkier.
"Rumor is one piece of a complicated and much larger puzzle," said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, which connects unaccompanied children with attorneys.
Young said the violence generated by gangs that are preying on younger and younger children and narcotrafficking is the primary driver, along with smugglers who are taking advantage of families, telling them that once children get across the border they will find a good life. According to a report by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 48 percent of unaccompanied children interviewed said they experienced or were threatened with harm by criminals.
"It's a desperate decision being made by desperate families," Young said. "They think it is safer for my child to make this perilous journey than remain here where they could be killed."
The children are mainly coming from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Because so many people from those countries came to the United States over the past 25 years or so, many have family in the United States. Gangs, especially in Honduras and El Salvador, have tightened their grip on society, said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which called this week for Congress and the administration to respond to the root causes of poverty and violence in Central America.
"It’s the perfect storm of increased violence and control by these organized crime networks, extreme poverty and lack of opportunity in their country and the fact that some family members, if not their parents, reside in the United States and have been in the United States for years and all contribute to this phenomenon," Appleby said.
President Obama directed various federal agencies to create a response that will provide the children with shelter, food, medical treatment and mental health services once they are caught at the border. More than 1,000 children are being housed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and another facility will be opened at a base in Ventura County, Calif., that can accommodate 600 children.
Caitlin Sanderson, program director at the Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project in Los Angeles, said she does not believe rumor has played any role in children trying to come to the United States.
"Since January we have talked with 600 to 700 unaccompanied children and we ask every single one, 'why did you come to the United States?'" Sanderson said. "I have not come upon one intake form that says, 'because of a rumor that says I can stay here.'"
Sanderson said rumor has, and does, affect immigrant communities, but she sees this influx as having a direct correlation to the increasing violence in Central America.
"We have seen the effect that rumors can have within immigrant communities, but quite frankly this rumor feels more like an administration media rumor and I have not seen it supported in the work that we do," she said.
Angela Maria Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said it is important to remember that this is a regional problem; Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are also experiencing an uptick in migrants.
Podesta said the situation is "another reason why we need to reform" the immigration system, but "in the meantime we have to deal with a humanitarian crisis."