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Congress Needs to Take More Balanced Approach to Crisis of Unaccompanied Minors

August 2014

Since October of last year, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border into the United States. Most of them have come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  That number is expected to grow to between 70,000 and 90,000 by the end of this year.

So far, Congress has struggled to agree on an appropriate legislative response. Bread for the World believes that the federal government must take a more balanced approach to the child immigration issue and consider in the national debate the conditions that are forcing children to leave their home countries in the first place.

These desperate children are fleeing conditions of poverty, hunger, and violence in Central America. Until safe communities with educational and economic opportunities are established, these children will continue to flee to the United States and other neighboring countries.

President Obama has submitted a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental request for consideration. The majority of this funding is allocated to the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. However, $295 million is apportioned to the State Department. Of this $295 million, 17.6 percent is designated for border control, reparation, and reintegration efforts; 82.4 percent would deal with the root issues. Specifically, $90 million is aimed at economic development.

With over half of citizens in Honduras and Guatemala living on less than $4 a day, malnutrition is rampant. As a result, half of the Guatemalan population suffers from moderately to severely stunted growth. By working with local governments to improve economic opportunities, this supplemental request would combat both poverty and hunger.

In addition, one of the most compelling reasons children are migrating is violence – particularly gang-related violence. Honduras has the highest murder rate per capita in the world. It is almost five times that of Mexico and twice that of Detroit. The emergency supplement would apportion $148 million to crime fighting and programs targeting at-risk youth, civil society, and governance.

Congress has had a decidedly mixed reaction to this emergency supplemental request. Controversy has centered primarily on the lack of offsets to pay for the package, the prioritization of programs for additional funding, and the U.S. immigration policy in general. In addition, some have expressed concern over the “emergency” requirement designation as funding falls outside the fiscal year 2014 spending caps.

Most recently, House and Senate appropriators have demonstrated that they will be pursuing different emergency supplemental packages. While Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has stated that she would like to fully fund the president’s $3.7 billion emergency supplemental request, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is pursuing a smaller package that would address only the most immediate needs.

It is possible that we will see two proposals for supplemental bills addressing this crisis. However, it is unlikely that either of these bills will address the root causes of hunger, poverty, and violence in the countries of origin. We are hopeful that Congress will pass an emergency supplemental before the August recess. Bread hopes any legislation passed will be both comprehensive and balanced.

In order to address the driving causes for child migration, Bread is urging Congress to direct the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of our foreign assistance in relation to deterring migration. If this agency can identify which programs are most effective, tax dollars can be used more efficiently in tackling both poverty in the region and the migration issue.

Congress must also develop strategies for achieving sustainable and lasting economic and agricultural development in the region. As long as children in these countries lack food, education, and opportunity, they will continue to cross the border.

In conjunction with border control, Congress should focus on the implementation of long-term repatriation programs that prioritize job training and education for children who are deported.

Appointing a high-level coordinator within the State Department, such as an ambassador at large for children in adversity, and establishing an office to be the focal point for policy formulation and response to the humanitarian concerns facing children, such as those fleeing violence and hunger in Central America, should also be a priority.

For more information, check out our fact sheet on the crisis.

Photo: Infographic by Doug Puller/Bread for the World

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