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Flow of Central American Children Headed to U.S. Shifts but Doesn’t Slow

7 Oct

The recent images of tens of thousands of desperate asylum seekers streaming into Europe recall a smaller but significant migration crisis unfolding along the southern border of the United States: Waves of Central American migrants — many of them children — were detained at the border last year.

A disturbing number of unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have tried to reach the United States in the past two years, risking detention by law enforcement, abuse by human traffickers and dire conditions along the way.

From the beginning of October 2013 through July of this year, nearly 80,000 unaccompanied minors from those Central American countries were detained by United States authorities along the Mexican border.

And those were the ones who made it that far. Others were ransomed by the very smugglers to whom their families paid thousands of dollars to sneak them into the United States. Some lost limbs during the journey or found themselves sold into sexual slavery, still others turned back.

What would drive children to make such a perilous journey without their parents or another adult?

Endemic gang violence in Central America and lack of economic opportunity for young people, as well as governments unable to adequately respond to those problems, have driven many young migrants north. Others have sought to be reunited with their families who had already left in search of a better life in the United States.

The situation has alarmed American officials and forced them to confront a growing crisis to the south. The authorities responded by announcing a plan for $1 billion in development aid to help address the causes of the crisis.

Even before those funds have been approved, the number of migrants reaching the United States has begun to drop: Fewer Central Americans have been stopped along the southern border with Mexico in the last fiscal year. Some American officials have said this shows the success of tighter border controls and better public information campaigns in the region. However, there was a slight increase in migrants stopped at the border in August.

In reality, the problem seems to have simply been pushed farther south: Many of the young migrants are now stopped entering Mexico instead.

The Mexican government detained close to 92,000 Central American migrants from October 2014 to April 2015. During the same period, the United States held 70,448 people from places other than Mexico, according to data from the Washington Office on Latin America.

The desperation in Central America driving people north has not abated. The escape route for many migrants has, for now, just shifted.