At age 16, Edwin Ajche fled Guatemala in 2011 to join his older brother in the United States. Despite the risks that come with traveling north and crossing the border alone, his parents believed that their son would be safer in the U.S. than at home. But Edwin was detained at the border. After spending a month in prison-like conditions at a border holding facility, he was released to his brother in New York.
Two years later, he approached the Bay Parkway Community Job Center at the Worker’s Justice Project in Brooklyn looking for a job. He needed to pay back the $7,000 debt he owed the coyotes who guided his journey. Ligia Guallpa, the executive director at the organization, instead encouraged him to enroll in school, as he was too young to seek work. Like many of his friends from Central America, Edwin is now living in a state of limbo while his case makes its way through the immigration courts, a process that can take years.
The number of unaccompanied youth attempting to cross into the U.S. has tripled since 2011. More than 52,000 kids — the majority from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have been detained at the U.S. border since October 2013. But while the country is captivated by the crisis at our southern border, less attention has been paid to the impact of this surge in towns and cities across the country. This is where many children like Edwin will find themselves awaiting immigration hearings, and where public officials and community groups will be responsible for integrating them into their local communities.
Much of the current dilemma in the U.S. stems from the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. In an effort to address human trafficking from countries in Central America, the law requires children detained from those countries to receive a hearing with an immigration judge. Court backlogs mean wait times can last years, so children are discharged to their family or foster care until they are granted a hearing. New York alone has received 3,300 unaccompanied children this fiscal year.
As a result, the challenge — and opportunity — for many local communities is to create an environment that supports this young population. The media has focused on the protests against the arrival of these children in Murietta, California last week, but the reality is that there are far more cities taking steps to better adapt to demographic changes and the economic and social benefits of immigration than those who refuse them.
The Murietta protests do, however, highlight the deplorable use of a devastating humanitarian crisis to increase misinformation around the immigration reform debate. Let’s be clear: Regardless of what opponents of reform may say, the wave of children reaching U.S. soil now reflects a very real and serious crisis of insecurity in Central America. Globally, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala rank first, fourth and fifth, respectively, in per capita murder rates. A toxic mix of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, crime and gang violence have created an extremely dangerous environment for children. In a report released this March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that at least 58 percent of unaccompanied youth crossing into the U.S. had legitimate claims for international protection. Just this week, the commissioner recommended these children be treated as refugees.
Understanding that this is a true humanitarian crisis — and not conflating it with a political debate over immigration reform — is important for the U.S.’s reaction to the children’s arrival, but it is also important to help cities integrate the new population. Children as young as eight years old arrive traumatized, often having faced extortion, rape and a host of horrors in transit at the hands of smugglers, and are then held in overburdened U.S. government facilities. Regardless of their fate after their court hearings, these minors deserve better than angry mobs blocking their access to holding centers.
Without sufficient federal government support, the responsibility to help young immigrants access the legal aid, health care, emotional support and education they need while they remain in legal limbo has fallen to city agencies and community-based organizations. Fortunately, cities such as New York are already leading the way when it comes to creating a framework to support their immigrant populations, having recognized that the more immigrants are integrated into the civic and economic life of communities, the stronger these communities will be. Those cities — not the Murriettas — are becoming the norm today.
Case in point: New York’s Immigrant Justice Corps fellowship program was providing legal representation for unaccompanied immigrant children, with the help of a $1.3 million grant from the Robin Hood Foundation, well before the president announced that he would give $2 million to help increase legal representation available to unaccompanied youth.
Whether its job growth, economic competitiveness, urban renewal or crime reduction, the facts show that immigration is a net positive, and cities are increasingly taking steps to ensure that their immigrant populations feel welcome and thrive. In addition to traditional immigrant gateways like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, cities newer to the immigration story have come to realize the economic and social benefits of policies and initiatives to welcome immigrants. From Dayton, Ohio’s Welcome Dayton initiative to Nashville’s MyCity Academy helping orient new immigrants to the municipal government and its services, cities across the country are taking steps to help integrate newcomers into the local economy and the social fabric of the community. In Charlotte and Atlanta, the city governments are currently working with the business community and civil society to develop frameworks for their own integration plans.
These cities with the infrastructure and networks to welcome their immigrant communities are ahead of the curve, and will be better prepared to support and address the needs of youth from Central America.
The unaccompanied children crisis only underscores the need for federal immigration reform. The status quo cannot be maintained, either for the 11 million undocumented immigrants upon whose contributions our economy heavily relies, or for the tens of thousands of youth with legitimate claims for international protection. President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that he will request $3.7 billion in emergency funds to confront the youth crisis is important, but will not sufficiently address the structural factors at play in Central America, or our broken immigration system at home that creates the opportunity for criminal networks to exploit a desperate population seeking a better and safer life.
While we wait for reform, cities will continue at the epicenter of how the immigration story plays out. New York has been a national leader in this work; its newest initiative offering municipal IDs to all New York City residents will help Edwin and thousands of others get access to critical city services. As cities like Atlanta and Charlotte begin to develop their own immigrant integration initiatives, there is an opportunity to create a framework that will not only support youth coming from Central America, but will adequately integrate immigrants who help our communities thrive.