WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about dangerous Mexicans slipping across the U.S. border and stealing jobs from hard-working Americans has suddenly dominated the debate over immigration and the root causes of that exodus: violence, crime, poverty and hopelessness.
Less talked about is what happens to those people — especially children traveling alone — who are caught and eventually deported back to wherever they came from.
Of the 16,500 unaccompanied children detained by U.S. immigration authorities during Fiscal Year 2014, one-fourth came from Guatemala alone, with most of the rest originating in Honduras and El Salvador. The majority were teenage boys, but a third were girls, and 2 percent were younger than 10 years of age.
In fact, U.S. arrival figures for Central American children have fallen by 60 percent so far this year, though arrivals from Guatemala have fallen much less than those from Honduras and El Salvador.
“Mexico is deporting thousands of children and adults back to Guatemala, and those trends have really accelerated in the last couple of years,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “Mexico apprehends more Central Americans than the U.S. does, but that’s especially true of children.”
In 2014 the Mexican government detained 23,000 children, triple the year before, and deported 18,000 of them, more than double the year before. And Rosenblum predicted that both figures will jump by 50 percent in 2015.
“Mexico has really expanded its southern border campaign,” he said. “In contrast to the U.S., Mexico very quickly turns them around and deports them.”
For now, Rosenblum said, very few of these children are being deported from the United States. Since 2011, some 35,000 unaccompanied Guatemalan kids have reached U.S. soil, though fewer than 2,000 have been sent back, according to U.S. official data.
“Looking ahead, very few unaccompanied children are likely to be deported back to Central America anytime soon because it takes so long to work through the process, and very few of these cases are being closed in the courts with deportation orders,” Rosenblum said. “Most of the kids who reach the U.S. remain in limbo, fueling the perception that children won’t be deported.”
Earlier this year, Warren Newton and Nathan Hesse, two young researchers from George Washington University, traveled to Guatemala to get the bigger picture, so to speak. They, along with Rosenblum, presented their findings during a June 16 conference at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“We wanted to look at another side of the story: the repatriation these children face once they return to Guatemala,” Newton said. “The story doesn’t end with deportation.”
The two spent some time in Guatemala City, then headed to the western highlands, using the city of Quetzaltenango as a base while conducting field research in three nearby departments with particularly heavy emigration flows.
Newton said 85 percent of Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran children intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border had a parent living in the United States. According to a 2013 survey conducted by Guatemala’s Ministry of Social Welfare, the top reason for emigration was to seek economic opportunities, followed by family reunification.
“About 70 percent of Guatemalans work in the informal sector, which is unstable and low-paying. And about 67 percent of Guatemalans living under the poverty line of $1.25 a day are indigenous,” Newton said, adding that Guatemala’s homicide rate is 31 per 100,000 inhabitants — and the 2012 impunity rate is 72 percent for crimes against life.
That explains why so many Guatemalans are willing to attempt a trip to the U.S., even though the journey is extremely dangerous.
“It’s not uncommon for children to encounter sexual abuse. Young women are advised to take contraceptives in anticipation that they may be raped. And after they come back, they’re ostracized by the community for being corrupted by American culture,” Newton said.
“The rumors that these young girls have been raped make them no longer deemed worthy of marriage or being someone’s girlfriend.”
He added: “The removal process [from the United States] takes a long time, and human smugglers have taken advantage of this, marketing their services and telling people that women and children have a right to remain in the U.S., and spreading false and misleading information.”
In conducting their research, Newton and Hesse met with Guatemalan migration, law enforcement and social welfare officials.
“Those deported by land from Mexico arrive by bus to Casa Nuestra Raíces in Quetzaltenango, and those deported from the U.S. arrive by air to La Aurora Air Force Base in Guatemala City,” he said. “Interviews are conducted in Spanish, which is a second language for many of these [indigenous] children. If the programs were more culturally sensitive, that would create a greater amount of support among the communities themselves.”
Before 2012, all reintegration proceedings took place pretty much on the tarmac, he said, but since then, the children are sent to a shelter in the city.
According to Hesse, Casa Nuestras Raíces, near the Mexican border, can house up to 80 kids at a time.
The problem is only likely to get more acute, Hesse said, noting that today, one out of every 15 Guatemalans lives in the United States, making family reunification a stronger drive for immigration.
But the U.S. government hopes to reverse the trend. About 80 percent of the $1 billion Obama is seeking to fund the Alliance for Prosperity program in Central America would be devoted to social issues, which advocates say are the root causes of migration. Money earmarked specifically for development assistance in Guatemala would rise from $43 million in fiscal 2014 to $205 million in fiscal 2016.
The funds have yet to be approved by Congress.
Hesse said part of this development assistance should go to repatriation services. “A lot can be done to help these communities. A key investment in repatriation would be a really useful and long-lasting plan,” Hesse said.
“We’d like to see legislated solutions to repatriation that can last beyond particular administrations so that we can have long-term solutions,” he said, adding that for now, he sees little cooperation between civil society and the Guatemalan government.
Rosenblum, from the Migration Policy Institute, agreed, noting that “the deck is really stacked against returnees” and that thousands of children are already being returned, with thousands more subject to future deportation.
“Badly designed repatriation programs run the risk of making a bad situation much worse,” Rosenblum said. “A lot of these kids are fleeing serious situations which may not meet the specific criteria that entitle them to relief in the U.S., but nonetheless to send these poor kids back to the situations they’re fleeing strikes us as morally problematic.”
For one thing, failed attempts to emigrate only make such families about $3,500 poorer, not to mention the fact that the children have been scarred by the experience.
“Obviously, it’s the worst possible outcome,” Rosenblum said, adding that “such programs are likely to fail if there are no services available to them. If it doesn’t stick, nobody benefits except for the smugglers and criminals.”