When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
A surge of children crossing the U.S. border from Central America is bringing new scrutiny to the treatment of migrants in U.S. custody, and sparking debate about why so many children are undertaking the dangerous journey. Our region’s large Central American population is feeling the ripple effects as increasing numbers of young migrants arrive here. We explore the issues.
- Sheena Wadhawan Legal Program Manager, Casa de Maryland
- Leslie Velez Senior Protection Officer, UNHCR
- Hector Silva Avalos Research Fellow, Center for Latin American/Latino Studies, American University; former investigative reporter for the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica; former Deputy Chief of Mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington
- Doris Meissner Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute; and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's been a major news story for weeks now. A huge surge in the number of unaccompanied children undertaking a dangerous journey to the U.S. from Central American countries including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, many of them headed to our region, which has one of the country's largest Central American populations.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while much of the debate here is about immigration policy from the perspective of many of the organizations dealing with this issue, it's a refugee crisis first, a result of increasing violence and lawlessness in their home countries. Joining us to discuss this is Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program with the Migration Policy Institute. She was commissioner of the INS from 1993 until 2000. Doris Meissner, thank you for joining us.
MS. DORIS MEISSNERThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Leslie Velez, senior protection officer with the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. Leslie Velez, thank you for joining us.
MS. LESLIE VELEZThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Sheena Wadhawan is the legal program manager for Casa de Maryland, an organization that provides services and support for low-income residents. Sheena Wadhawan, thank you for joining us.
MS. SHEENA WADHAWANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. What do you think the U.S. should be doing about the surge of children across our border? You can also send us an email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'd like to start the conversation though, with Hector Silva Avalos, who is a research fellow in the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, former investigative reporter in El Salvador, and former deputy chief of Mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington. He joins us by phone from Arizona. Hector, thank you for joining us.
MR. HECTOR SILVA ABALOSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIHector, looking into the situation on the ground at some of the detention facilities where minors are being held there in Arizona, where are you now and what have you seen?
ABALOSWell, I'm in Tucson right now, on my way to Florence to see a shelter they have there. And I was yesterday in Nogales in the detention center that the Border Patrol has there. Well I've seen -- well, a sharp increase in the number of minors that are coming through the borders, especially in the area of McAllen, Texas. But they're overwhelmed there, so they're sending a lot of minors up here to Nogales. So it's kind of overwhelmed here. Yesterday they had a little less than 1,000 minors. Most of them come from El Salvador and Guatemala. The conditions in this center are pretty good, considering. They are getting attention -- they're getting medical attention.
ABALOSBut I have been told that that's not the situation in other centers at the border. And far more important, it's hearing from the kids and from the people that -- in talking to them, especially in the Central American Consulates down here about the reasons that bring them here. And what I'm hearing is a combination of two things. First, and mostly, the wish to go to their families here in the United States. But also, some of them, getting away from violence down there, especially the kids coming from really violent neighborhoods in their countries.
ABALOSAnd another interesting thing, Kojo, is that they're reporting that now they're taking less time than usual to come to the United States. So that's raising a lot of questions down here and what the situation along the path, along the way. These kids usually take from 20 days to a month to get from Guatemala or southern Honduras all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. But now they're saying that their taking less, far less, some of them even a week.
NNAMDIWe have also heard about allegations of abuse in Arizona where you are. Have you heard any more about that? Have you spoken to organizations that have been able to either confirm or deny this?
ABALOSYes, yes, I have. I was stopped -- well there's a coalition now of organizations that presented a complaint to DHS last week or a couple of weeks ago, documenting and reporting 116 cases of abuse all along the border -- a lot of them or an important number of them, happening here in Arizona -- abuses that go all the way from lack of medical, of proper medical attention in the shelters, harassment by the border patrol officers and even some sexual harassment to the girls.
ABALOSAnd another important phenomena is that an important number of pregnant girls are coming. Some of them realize that they are pregnant when they get a test up here. And I -- one of those organizations is based precisely in Florence. And they are telling, you know, pretty horrific stories about these abuses, yes.
NNAMDIThis is not a new situation for Salvadoran children. Can you talk about what's led up to this point?
ABALOSWell, yes. This is not new. I've been living in the Washington Metropolitan Area for five years now and I've heard, well I've talked and heard about people leaving their houses, you know, second-generation migrants that came here, you know, from 6 to 10 years ago, and left their small children in their countries, have been now bringing them. I was talking to one lady last Friday in Maryland and she said, listen, I am aware of all the risks that this represents.
ABALOSBut if I came here to work and to provide a better life, I want to -- now that I have the money and I have the means to do it, I want my children with me. So I want to bring them. So and this is happening. It has been happening, abuses have been happening for a period of time now.
NNAMDIHector, many -- a lot of people are saying that rumors about U.S. policy are a part of what is fueling this surge. What have you heard?
ABALOSYes, yes. I've heard about that. There's a, like, you know, those rumors have -- we have gotten now to a situation in which a lot of people, a lot of Central Americans think that now it's easier for these kids to be allowed here and even to get asylum here. My sense is that that's not the case. And actually, and there's also a number of people getting profit from this. And some of the people that have been running that rumor are people that are actually getting money for it. They're charging extra to bring the kids here.
ABALOSAnd they connect the families with people here in the United States, lawyers and so on, and they've told them, oh, listen, I have a guy in Houston or in Washington that can help you can get a (word?) the situation of your kid, which is not true. I actually just talked to a southern official, a couple of minutes ago and she told me that they have detected a fraud in Houston of people that are saying that they're part of this (word?) and...
NNAMDIThe rumors -- the rumor of course is that the U.S. is providing asylum to unaccompanied minors. But I'd like to move on to another factor, violence in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Is that another major factor? What's the situation there that's causing children to leave in such large numbers?
ABALOSWell, here, we have what is a sharp increase in violence, especially among or targeting young people, and these in particular in El Salvador, has a lot to do with gangs. You know, we have a really big problem with gangs in Central America, in the Northern Triangle, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. And in Honduras and El Salvador especially, what we have now is a very violent situation (unintelligible) military police. And for a lot of kids down there, staying there means either to join the gang or to get threatened if they don't do that. And this has been worsening in the past five years or so.
NNAMDIWhat does this mean for El Salvador, if so many children see no future and are therefore leaving?
ABALOSWell, it's a national crisis actually. It's a national crisis. We're losing our young. And then that means, in terms of immigration, that a lot of people, a lot of families are willing to face the risk of bringing their children here with all that that means for the children in the way up here, and it's to be subject of abuses in the road or once they're in the United States. But they're willing to do that. And what they're saying is, I'd rather concern that risk than (word?) my kid there and knowing that he might be facing death or threats or a future of joining the gang. I'd rather have him here, despite all the risks that that represents.
NNAMDIHector, thank you so much for joining us.
ABALOSThank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIHector Silva Avalos is a research fellow in the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. He's a former deputy chief of mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington. Doris Meissner, this problem is not new. Numbers of unaccompanied children have been on the rise for a while, increasing significantly, it's my understanding, since 2012. Why do you think this is getting attention now?
MEISSNERIt's getting attention now because it's suddenly increased in such large numbers and so rapidly that it's overwhelming the ability of border officials and of Health and Human Services to receive and care for these young people. This -- these are number that have been in the neighborhood of a few thousand each year.
MEISSNERAnd all of a sudden in 2012, they started to escalate. And they really began to escalate last fall, so that between last fall and now, we're looking at what will be a doubling or probably a tripling this year of what the number had been. That is just an enormous change and a tremendous responsibility for U.S. government officials, if they're going to stay in compliance with our laws on how we treat unaccompanied children.
NNAMDILeslie Velez, you work with the U.S. office of the UN's refugee agency. And you look at the U.S. like you look at any other state. You've been watching this situation of children coming here for some time. What have you seen?
VELEZIn the context of these large, increasing numbers that Doris just spoke to, we went in and conducted a large study last year, interviewing over 404 children, to ask very open-ended questions as to the reasons why they left their homes. The idea for us was to understand what the reasons were and, in that context, is there any reason for the UN Refugee Agency to be concerned. And we found that almost 60 percent feared harm in their home countries. And, if returned, that some of them even feared for their lives.
NNAMDIDid you find that there was a significant escalation of the harm that they were describing over the past, oh, three or four years or so?
VELEZIndeed. The way the stories came from the children was really heart wrenching. So behind these numbers are some very impactful stories. For example, we had one girl who explained that she tried to resist being recruited by one of these gang members to be one of their, in quotes, "girlfriend." And she was scared to resist because she had seen her friends dismembered and put into plastic bags laid out along the route to school -- which is quite graphic, but this is an incredible escalation in violence and harm.
NNAMDISheena Wadhawan, because of the large Central American population in our region, the Washington area is one of the several metropolitan areas receiving many of these children. How does Casa de Maryland come into contact with the children we're talking about here?
WADHAWANFamilies often come to Casa looking for help. Just this week we had a woman whose daughter had been kidnapped after making the perilous journey over, making it over into Texas. And now likely her smugglers are holding her for ransom and sending her mother pictures of her bruised and beaten. And we're just dealing with an influx of desperate suffering parents who are worried about their children.
NNAMDIHas your organization noticed an uptick in the number of parents and children seeking help?
WADHAWANI mean, I think it's important to note that this is not a new issue. It has been ongoing but, yes, there has been a steady increase. And we've seen in the last few weeks quite an uptick.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call the number's 800-433-8850. We're talking about immigrant children crossing the border. Do you think the large number of migrant children is a refugee issue or do you see it as an immigration issue, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about immigrant children crossing the border. We're talking with Sheena Wadhawan, legal program manager for Casa de Maryland which provides services and support for low-income residents. Leslie Velez is a senior protection officer with the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. And Doris Meissner is a senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program with the Migration Policy Institute. She was commissioner of the INS from 1993 until 2000.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433 -- 433-8500. Is that the right number? 433-8500. (sic) I say that so often sometimes it just disappears. Leslie, the administration initially dismissed as partisan politics the idea that the surge of children is a result of the U.S. immigration policy. But now it seems that the administration is focused on a campaign to address what are now being described as misconceptions about U.S. policy.
NNAMDIVice President Joe Biden headed to Central America now as a part of that program. Can you talk a little bit about it?
VELEZSure. What we're seeing in given the information in our own research as the UN Refugee Agency and the Humanitarian Agency mandated to protect refugees, our role is to make sure that different states don't reject legitimate asylum seekers. And in that context we're working very closely not just with the U.S. but with Mexico, with Guatemala and surrounding countries to ensure that individuals who fear return have access to the asylum process.
NNAMDITo what extent, Doris Meissner, is there some validity to the rumor that's been spreading that the U.S. is giving asylum to unaccompanied children?
MEISSNERWell, this is a very complicated situation because there's no question that there are dreadful conditions in the home communities and home country situations of many of these young people, as Leslie has described. But at the same time there is treatment of this kind of migrant in the U.S. prescribed by U.S. law that is being understood to be status in the United States. Whether it's asylum or any other kind of legal status, that's really almost beside the point for people in these circumstances. For people in these circumstances the question is, can they be here? Can they remain here?
MEISSNERAnd what's going on is that we have, in the case of people under the age of 18, children, a requirement that they be handed over from the border patrol within 72 hours to officials in the Department of Health and Human Services. And those people who work in the office, what's called Office of Refugee Resettlement, are responsible for medical care, for placing them ultimately because they are scheduled for immigration hearings but they have a right under the law for a full immigration hearing before an immigration judge.
MEISSNERAnd those hearings are so backlogged in the United States that the only responsible way of waiting for those hearings to take place is to release children into the care of somebody in the United States. Most of these children have a parent or a relative in the United States. In fact, 85 percent of them have a parent or a relative here. So they are, after a certain period of screening and getting some food into them and so forth, placed in these family situations awaiting their hearings.
MEISSNERBut those hearings are not likely to take place for at least a year. And depending on where you are in the country, as much as two years, perhaps more than that. These numbers now mean that the hearings are far stretched out into the future. And during that period of time the children are here, they're with family members. That's being interpreted as being allowed to be in the United States. It is being allowed to be in the United States but it is not political asylum. It is not a grant of legal status. It is not a permesso in the way in which it's being understood to be a permit to be in the U.S.
MEISSNERSo there is a real -- I mean, depending on how you look at it, these are migrations that are actually succeeding in children getting here and being placed with families. But the long term prospects for them are uncertain. Some of them may achieve asylum. Many of them -- some of them are not likely to achieve asylum.
NNAMDIAnd here is the response you get from some individuals who see themselves as being affected by this. Here's Dominick in Springfield, Va. Dominick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOMINICKHello, Kojo. It's always good to hear you. And the panel's great. Please don't think I'm insensitive to what they're talking about. Everybody loves kids and, you know, we can understand the hardship that some of the parents are having and leaving their kids on the border. But the thing I don't like is, you know, they're blaming the U.S. government -- every time something like this happens, the people who come here illegally, like, the U.S. government gets put on spot like it's awful.
DOMINICKAnd then for me, I came here to the United States when I was six years old when President Nixon was president. I'm 49 years old. And every time we have a global crisis -- I applied for my citizenship in 1987. I still have -- every time like when the Ethiopians came by the thousands they put people like me back. Now you have this problem from Central America which personally I believe, like, to come from El Salvador you have to come through several countries before you come to the United States. And these countries are very irresponsible to be allowing those people to get this far without checking their status. (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIAnd you feel that that pushes you farther back in line.
DOMINICKYes. As a carpenter I have -- I've been looking for work for three months. And then people are crying about how illegal Central American people getting treated. I can't get a job because they're the ones getting the jobs.
NNAMDIWell, let me have some responses to that. Is there any expectation or precedent to suggest that as children they might be treated more leniently than adults who cross into the country illegally?
MEISSNERAbsolutely not, Kojo. That is just not a reality. Most of these children can't qualify for asylum the way that that law is treated in our country now. You could understand in every other part of our American judicial system, when kids are in court proceedings they get some sort of guardian ad-litem or they are entitled to legal counsel. In immigration courts, not at all.
MEISSNERYou were throwing these kids into court in a very complicated process that even educated adults who speak English as a first language feel they need an attorney to navigate. They're pushed out there often alone and they're held to the same burden of proof. They're held to the same evidentiary burden as any adult. It is very difficult for these children to navigate this process. They often do not -- are not able to secure legal assistance. It's a very difficult process.
MEISSNERThe other thing that I would add in addressing the caller's good comment, but we absolutely are responsible. The United States absolutely has had a role in creating and contributing to the conditions in these countries that are causing these children to run for their lives.
NNAMDIWhat would that role be? Or what has that role been?
MEISSNERI would tell you that it has failed both foreign policy and domestic policy. The war on drugs in this country, the demand for drugs, that market is here. The market driving that violence is in this country. And we have interfered in the politics, in the governments of these countries, of the government of Honduras and we have deported gang members to Honduras. And all of these factors contribute to the extreme violence in that country.
NNAMDILeslie, here in the U.S. this is seen as an immigration crisis. Can you talk about how your organization views it?
VELEZSure. This is not just a U.S. immigration problem. Indeed as the UN Refugee Agency we track statistics, very detailed statistics over years. And we have noted a 712 percent increase in the number of asylum applications to countries other than the United States from these same three countries. And, you know, the humanitarian crisis that's happening on the ground is causing forced displacement.
VELEZAnd yes, it's a mixed flow but how do governments identify the children who fear harm, you know? And I'd add to the solutions, you know, all the humanitarian response isn't going to stop a flow. You have to just shut off the faucet. I mean, which would require addressing the causes, the conditions on the ground, a humanitarian response outside of the United States. So the caller was right. You know, the asylum and protection system of Mexico, the asylum and protection system of Guatemala, all the children have to go through there, if you look on a map, in order to be able to move northward.
VELEZAnd as well as in neighboring countries as well as, you know, keeping an eye on the U.S. domestic response. Because the U.S. is a global leader in refugee protection, so how it acts is how other governments are going to follow.
NNAMDIYour organization wanted to know why these children were making this journey. Tell me about the interviews and what you learned.
VELEZWe learned that many children -- they come for many reasons, as much as we would like for them to have told us in order of priority. I left because of family or economic reasons, or I feared violence. Indeed, talking to a boy who said that he was going to join his cousin and he hopes to start a rock band, then revealed that his parents beat him because he was a homosexual. And then he was really picked on by the gangs as well. Not just picked on, I'm sorry, he was really threatened from that.
VELEZSo, I mean, there was no safety either in the community or in his home. And that was just one of 404 stories that started off with giving many reasons from the perspective of a child. And so in looking at the bigger picture we also closely track media and what's happening on the ground. You know, El Salvador, they're digging up mass graves in a so-called gang truce. You know, the murders maybe, you know, are leveling off but the disappearances are growing. And this is all in a climate of impunity.
VELEZIn Honduras we documented a recent massacre with children as young as five and seven who were publically dismembered in order to send out a message to the kids of who's in control. In Guatemala, you know, our research found that there's a lot of abuse and violence happening in homes. And it was certainly -- you know, you have to look at the region as three separate countries. We tend to lump them altogether but they're very different.
VELEZAnd the first lady of Guatemala has been actually quite the champion to protect children who are on the move. But Guatemala doesn't have resources. You know, nor does Mexico but, you know, in Guatemala, though, there's also the context of violence. So we're hearing, I mean, the same old story about drug traffickers threatening families. You know, give me title...
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned same old story because there are skeptics who say the violence in these countries or the gangs in these countries are not new phenomena. The only new phenomenon that they are hearing is the rumor that unaccompanied children will be given asylum in the United States. And so they're saying, are you sure these children are not being coached? How are you sure?
VELEZOh, I'm not sure that they're not being coached. Actually I'm quite sure that they are. So drug traffickers are preying on the situation, so two things, Kojo. One is that the gangs are targeting children specifically. They are a specific target of this violence. And they're operating with more impunity. States don't have the capacity to protect their own citizens at home. And as they're, you know, moving forward, they're the targets and being preyed.
VELEZSo give me the title to your land and I will guarantee safe passage to the United States or wherever. These are choices -- I mean, if you want to call it a choice, that families are under -- are facing.
NNAMDIOkay. On to Denise in Mitchellville, Md. Denise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENISEGood morning. Oh, I'm sorry, good afternoon and thank you for taking my call. I just want to say that as Americans we need to embrace children of any nation. If they want to come to the United States for whatever reason, if their parents are here we can unite them. We need to put systems in place so that we can make sure that the children are united with their parents and that their parents are then held responsible. And we're able to keep a track of where those children and their parents are until they are given citizenship.
DENISEI don't think anybody on this station would want to have their child killed, dismembered and spread across the land for other people to see. It doesn't happen here, but it does happen in other countries. And we need to be aware of it. We need to be sensitive to it. And we need to offer an opportunity for those children to live, just like anyone else.
NNAMDISheena, what kinds of risks do these children take on the journey here?
WADHAWANThank you so much, Denise, for your comment. The risks are awful. So what we're hearing is just on the journey, rape is almost ubiquitous for young women. They're selling Plan B the morning-after pill all around the route, which girls take in advance, so because of the high probability that they will suffer sexual assault along the way. Kidnapping, assault, murder, starvation, heat, harassment by gangs, by various customs officials, having to give bribes. It is a terrifying journey that these kids undergo to get here.
WADHAWANI really find it hard to believe that these kids think they're doing this for some sort of asylum for some sort of benefit. What they have to go through to get here is really unimaginable for most of us.
NNAMDIYou had a case the other day. A child was kidnapped. Can you tell us a little bit about that situation?
WADHAWANAbsolutely. The girl had been able to cross over into Texas fleeing terrible violence back home. She made it across and now she's being held for ransom. Her mother lives in Maryland and came to Casa de Maryland looking for help and is just desperate, in tears, vomiting and just -- and so terrified. And we said, have you been to the police? This is happening in America. Have you been to the police? No, of course not. I'm documented. I am terrified what will happen to me and my family.
WADHAWANThese kids -- so there's a percentage that are fleeing awful violence. There is some who have been separated from their families for years, for over a decade, mothers who haven't seen their kids since they were little, mothers who contribute to this economy, on whom all of our businesses here rely, all of us rely. And it's just -- it's awful what they have to go through to get here because of our broken immigration system and a failed congress.
NNAMDIHere is Bo in Washington, D.C. I should say Mo in Washington. Mo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOThank you, Kojo. I appreciate that, and my heart bleeds for the children but I think enough is enough. We should not be responsible for healing the problems of the world. We have our own problems in this country. I think our entire social system is breaking under the weight of the children and adults that come here. We just cannot open the doors and solve every problem in the world. We have our own problems (unintelligible) 90,000 children, many of them coached by their parents to come here for a better life.
MOAnd then to be united with their parents, that means to bring their parents into this -- I think the solution should be that we should fight the violence and help the governments of these countries to deal with their own issues. The solution is not to send them here. The -- to mend whatever the problem is and we are not responsible and we should just stop making these people victim of their circumstances. They certainly can change their situation and they should...
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to ask a technical question, Doris Meissner, that I guess is a part of what Mo is really asking about. How many more immigrants can we take? What is our capacity? How is our system set up?
MEISSNERWell, that's a pretty global question.
MEISSNERThere is no way to say what our capacity is but it is certainly the case that well-regulated managed immigration is the way we should be running a system, not a system that is -- creates…
NNAMDIThat is apparently currently being overwhelmed.
MEISSNER…the kind of circumstances that we're now seeing and that we're now struggling with. I mean, everything that everybody has said here is legitimate and valid. But at the end of the day, this is not the way that we should be dealing either with humanitarian responses or with immigration to the United States. It's also not the way that we should be partnering with the countries in the region. After all, these are countries that are fledgling democracies. They are still coming out of their own civil wars.
MEISSNERThe assistance that we give them is largely for security, not for development and not for social purposes. So the answers to this are -- have to happen at many, many layers, but where the United States is concerned and where people coming to the United States is concerned this is not the way that it should be happening. And there is no question, but that all of the factors here are conspiring to create this crisis. It is true that by the U.S. laws that are requiring humane treatment of people under the age of 18 that come to the United States, that is now being turned on its head.
MEISSNERBecause the requirements for people to have hearings, the requirements for people to be turned over to Social Services officials for placement is now being strained to the point that it can't cope effectively. So there are -- if we line up all the problems that need to be addressed in order to respond effectively to this issue, we have a very big agenda. But that's what this crisis is forcing us to confront.
NNAMDIHave to take another short break. It looks like the lines are busy. So if you'd like to join the conversation send us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Do you think children coming here should be granted asylum? If you get lucky and the phone lines are open, just call 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about immigrant children crossing the border in increasing numbers with Leslie Velez, senior protection officer, with the UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency. Doris Meissner is a senior fellow, and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. She was commissioner of the INS from 1993 until 2000. And Sheena Wadhawan is the legal program manager for Casa de Maryland, an organization that provides services and support for low-income residents.
NNAMDISheena, this is a population that is often under the radar here. But this latest surge in numbers has brought it to the fore in some unexpected places, including a rural town in southern Virginia, which has just made a deal to house some of the migrants in an empty college in Lawrenceville. What kinds of challenges do you face in helping people understand the population that you're helping?
WADHAWANYou know Casa has over 50,000 members who are low-income immigrants. And it is a population we know to be known to be vibrant, strong, beautiful and contributing in all sorts of ways to this community. We find that when we can build power in the community, organize immigrants who are normally too afraid to come out of the shadows, when they are able to speak in their own voice about what brings them here and why they're here and why they believe this to be their home we find communities are welcoming and with open arms, and have a much better understanding of the value that immigrant communities bring to this country.
NNAMDIIs that what happened in Lawrenceville?
WADHAWANWell, Lawrenceville doesn't have a Casa office yet. So we'll probably have to get out there. I'm hearing some really disturbing stories about residents being very negative towards this idea of immigrant children being in their community. I'm frankly shocked by the lack of compassion and humanity that folks are displaying. And sort of what seems to me a fear and lack of understanding of what's going on and what these kids have been through.
WADHAWANAnd then our role in putting these events into place that have led these kids to come here. But I think that they will find months from now that it's a boon to their economy and a boon to their communities.
NNAMDIThe Brunswick County sheriff, Brian Roberts, says it's been shoved down our throat, 500 kids unaccounted for, illegal alien children in my little sleepy town. I just don't think it's the right fit for this community. Underscoring what you talked about. But here is Caleb, in Annapolis, Md. Caleb, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CALEBHello, Kojo. I called because I'm an immigration attorney and you guys were speaking before about the rumor that these kids could get asylum in the U.S. And I just wanted to make the comment that that rumor used to be more true than it is now. There was a time when an immigration attorney could take an unaccompanied minor who had a troubled background and could at least seek -- it's asylum under what's called a particular social group.
CALEBBecause there are different kinds of asylum. You can seek asylum for your religion or for nationality or other kinds of things. But particular social group is more a catch-all category or at least it used to be. One example are the women who were fleeing female genital mutilation. And children who were fleeing gang activities in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala used to be able to come to the U.S. and were once considered, you know, part of a particular social group.
CALEBThere have been a string of cases from the BIA over the past several years, they basically closed that door. They're no longer considered a particular social group. It's much harder to get asylum for these cases. There are ways around it, but it's extremely difficult.
CALEBThe only other…
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Caleb. But this brings us to policy questions, Doris Meissner. We got an email from Donna, who says, "What will the U.S. have to do" -- and I'd like you all to weigh in on this -- "to change this horrid situation? Is this something President Obama can make some changes in the process of immigration law without the Congress?"
MEISSNERNo. The president is actually fully complying with the law, which is part of why we're in the crisis that we're in because the requirements were not envisioned to involve this kind of numbers and this kind of concentrated crossing of the border. I mean, you have a situation here where, as compared with other illegal immigrant groups that do everything that they possibly can to avoid the border patrol and to avoid being arrested, this is a situation where people are trying to turn themselves over to the border patrol.
MEISSNERThey come across, the smugglers send them across in areas that are the most visible and the most likely to get a border patrol reaction. And that is because, for all of the issues that go with the facilities and with the difficulties in treatment, etcetera, they ultimately will be in the hands of American officials who will be responsible for figuring out where to place them while they await their hearing.
MEISSNERNow, what do we do about that? We have to do a whole range of things about that. But we do have to change this set of incentives that at this point is leading to large numbers of people being released into the United States, into the care of families, how it's the most sensible, it's the humanitarian thing to do, but then waiting for hearings that are going to take years to happen and that, for many, as the immigration lawyer points out, will not result in asylum.
NNAMDIIndeed, Sheena, these children might be reunited with a parent here in Maryland, in D.C., or Virginia, but as Doris Meissner's saying, that does not mean that they won't be deported ultimately. Can you talk about the legal status? What Caleb was referring to of a child who comes here on his or her own?
WADHAWANThat's absolutely right. So if a minor enters and does have a relative here who can take responsibility for them, what's called a sponsor, that sponsor can sign an agreement with the authorities, promising to make sure that that child appears at all their court hearings. And they can be released in the custody of that person. But they're still in court proceedings. Talking about asylum, you are eight times more likely to be able to secure asylum if you are represented by counsel.
WADHAWANAnd counsel is so difficult to secure for some many of these kids. So that's one issue. In all other parts of our criminal system, our justice system, kids get representatives in court. And that is a quick easy fix to at least insure that they're getting a fair shot at this. For kids who are caught near the border who can be removed immediately, border agents are absolutely able to deport immediately. And that is something that does happen, where the person is from a border country.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Gina and one from Cathy. I'd like to read both. It'll take a minute, but please bear with me. Gina said, "I've worked at a parish in San Salvador, El Salvador, for over 20 years. At this time of the year I would normally be in El Salvador, but for the first time in 14 years I did not go. It is just too dangerous because of the greatly increased gang activities this year. This is especially targeted towards children. I have reports from the principal of the school I work with that gang members wait for kids right outside the school gates to recruit.
NNAMDI"Gangs have stepped up activity, ignoring former safe and neutral zones like schools." That was from Gina. This from Cathy, in Wheaton, Md. "This is a terrible thing that these children are fleeing poverty and violence. But we have people born here, already living here, whose families pay taxes here, that cannot and do not get the help they need. How can we help every child in Central America?" Care to comment on that Leslie Velez or you, Sheena?
VELEZSo this is a challenge, not just for the U.S., but for all governments. And so I'll hit a few points here I hope that will be informative. On the asylum process, you know, this isn't the time for any government to restrict the international definition of asylum. When the U.S. government implemented its domestic legislation -- and I don't want to get geeky here -- but when they did that it was with the intention to pull the international definition in.
VELEZAnd it's in times of crisis where you really want to start parsing words or looking at details. But this is just not the time to restrict that. And so as the U.N. refugee agency, it's our role to support the government, to keep it open as it need be.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean when you say this is not the time to restrict that? Why?
VELEZWell, given that so many children are fearing for their lives if they're returned. So, you know, returning them without access to asylum is a huge problem. But we're talking about populations that come from, you know, countries and situations of entrenched poverty that don't have education levels. They probably don't even know what asylum or refugee means. They certainly don't know that there's a U.N. refugee agency. So we're really concerned that these children don't know that they have asylum.
VELEZAs Doris pointed out, they might be with a sponsor who puts them, you know, who agrees to put them through immigration proceedings, which might happen more than a year out. And here's the problem, is that they only have one year to file their asylum claim under U.S. law. So many of them don't even have the opportunity -- assuming that they would know -- and the majority of these children don't even have access to attorneys to navigate this complex system.
NNAMDIOn now to Al, in Washington, D.C. Al, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALThank you. There are refugee rights centers along the border. An example (unintelligible) in Harlingen, Texas. Is the government providing any financial or other service to these centers who are experienced in dealing with new arrivals in this country?
NNAMDIDo you know, Doris Meissner?
MEISSNERWell, the government agencies that are dealing with this now and FEMA, which has put in charge -- has now been put in charge by the president for the overall coordination of this effort, are working with every organization and capacity that they can. This part of South Texas -- the caller mentions Harlingen -- has been dealing with Central American flows since the 1980s when the civil wars in Central America led to the beginning of the Central American migration into the United States.
MEISSNERSo there is a great deal of experience. They are all overwhelmed. They're overwhelmed in terms of attorneys and legal assistance, shelter, communication with families in the United States. I think that the immediate -- the emergency response, as difficult as it is, is being mobilized. And the proper parties are coming to the table. The real question is, what do we do beyond emergency response in terms of addressing this issue because it's now become a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
MEISSNERThe crisis breeds further crisis. And the dangers that are involved, the willingness of families to pay for their children to be brought to the country in this way -- understanding the risks, they know the risks, but they believe and they have reason to believe that if their children get here they will be released and they will ultimately be reunited. This is a core principal in our immigration law, family reunification, but not this way. It's supposed to come about through people who are here and are able then to bring their children.
NNAMDIWe have less than two minutes left, Leslie, but get into some terminology distinctions here. What is a refugee, as opposed to asylum seeker?
VELEZA refugee is someone who fears persecution on very protected grounds. And I'm not going to get too technical here. The second they leave their home country, they become a refugee, but they're not recognized formally by any country. And so once a country does recognize them, then they're entitled to certain benefits under the convention. An asylum seeker is that refugee who is seeking to be formally recognized.
VELEZAnd, you know, all this conversation about the terminology and who are they and the capacity that's overwhelming, I mean, to put this in perspective from the U.N.'s, you know, 10,000 -- let's say 9,000 children came in the month of May, you know, that's the daily flow of persons crossing the border from Syria to Jordan. You know, so this is something that UNHCR has a lot of experience in responding to. And I know that it's shocking to the U.S. system, and it's, you know, crisis in Central America, that's just now tripping over to U.S. soil.
NNAMDIBut other countries are handling it, you say, all the time, in places like the Middle East.
VELEZAll the time. It's…
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Leslie Velez is senior protection officer with the UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency. Leslie, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDISheena Wadhawan is the legal program manager for Casa de Maryland, which provides services and support for low-income residents. Sheena, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Doris Meissner is a senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. She was commissioner of the INS from 1993 until 2000. Doris, thank you for joining us.
MEISSNERThank you. Pleased to be here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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