US border crisis: 'The children are refugees, not immigrants'

An influx of tens of thousands of Central American children at the US border has sparked an intense debate among politicians and the media on immigration. FRANCE 24 spoke to Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, DC.

John Moore, AFP I A US Border Patrol officer oversees a group of women and children who crossed the border from Mexico.

Since last October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained while crossing the US-Mexico border, about three-quarters of them fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

On Friday, the US Congress went on a five-week recess without reaching an agreement on an emergency spending bill to deal with the issue, despite the fact that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was set to run out of money by mid-August.

Mayeli Hernandez, 12, testifies to Congress about fleeing from Honduras. (AFP)
Mayeli Hernandez, 12, testifies to Congress about fleeing from Honduras. (AFP)

Faced with the congressional stalemate, the Obama administration said it would transfer $405 million from other programs to keep ICE’s border operations afloat.

Michelle Brané is director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC). The WRC runs the “Unaccompanied Minors Program”, which advocates for the rights of child migrants both in and out of federal immigration custody.

Brané spoke to FRANCE 24 about what she calls a “humanitarian crisis”.

FRANCE 24: The WRC has been reporting an increase in Central American children arriving at the southern US border for several years now, but how do you explain the sudden spike in numbers this year?

Michelle Brané: We’ve seen significant increases in violence in Central America since the beginning of 2014. In Honduras, for example, the murder rate of children specifically has been going up every month since January. The femicide [defined by feminist author Diana E. H. Russell as "the killing of females by males because they are females"] rate there has gone up by 30 percent since the beginning of the year.

When things are already bad and people are already fleeing, it’s logical that a large increase in violence in a small amount of time would result in more people fleeing.

FRANCE 24: What came out of Obama’s meeting with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala late last month?

MB: The dangers people are facing in these three countries are largely from organised crime and gang-related activities but there is also complicity on the part of the governments. I think it’s essential that they take some responsibility.

But it’s very clear that the US is exerting extreme pressure on these countries to keep their citizens from coming to the US. The danger is that we are restricting people looking for protection.

We know from the UNHCR report "Children on the Run" released in March, and from interviewing these children ourselves, that many of them would be in extreme danger if they returned to their home countries. They qualify for protection under the Refugee Convention and returning them under these conditions is a violation of international law.

FRANCE 24: So you would call the children at the southern border refugees, not immigrants?

MB: Almost any group that interacts with this population, like the UNHCR, considers it a humanitarian situation. Early on, the US administration recognised it as such, but President Obama has also made it very clear that his objective is to detain, deter and deport these children and families.

I think that there is a real fear about what the burden would be if we do recognise it as a humanitarian crisis. But we don’t ask for humanitarian situations, they come to us.

The US is constantly insisting that countries around the world accept refugees. Turkey, Egypt and Jordan are all accepting millions of Syrians, for example. They are much less equipped to do so based on their economies and their size in comparison to the numbers arriving.

Yet, here we are, the United States, panicking and backtracking on our protection systems because of the arrival of 100,000 children. It’s extremely problematic in terms of the message it sends to the world.

FRANCE 24: How would you assess the bill passed in the Republican-controlled House Friday?

MB: The House voted to overturn DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a 2012 Obama scheme to temporarily halt the deportations of young people who grew up in the US after being brought here illegally when they were very young.

There is also lot of discussion about changing a 2008 law (the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act) aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking, which people say makes it difficult to deport these children.

These two laws have been mistakenly associated with the current spike in children arriving at the southern border. None of those arriving even qualify for DACA. Also, UNHCR interviewed more than 400 kids and only one child had even heard of it.

I find it a particularly sad day when Congress can’t agree on anything and the one thing they push through is a series of rollbacks sending children – those fleeing violence and those who have lived in the US their entire lives – back into unsafe situations.

FRANCE 24: How do you feel about increased money going to border militarisation?

MB: That is the one thing that Congress members agree on. People are concerned about security at the border, but border protection is not where the money is needed for this particular crisis. These children turn themselves in to authorities at the border, asking for help.

I honestly think that if they had all the information, Americans would support putting more money into the justice system. The idea of a just process is fundamental to how Americans view themselves – everyone should have the right to go before a judge.

What the American public is being told is that there are swarms of kids at the border and we have to either let them in or send them out. Obviously, people are conflicted. What they need to hear is that we have a process, it just needs money to work.

FRANCE 24: The Department of Homeland Security said Friday it will transfer $405 million from other programmes in an emergency move to deal with the crisis. What does this mean for the situation at the border?

MB: In their refusal to pass a funding bill, Congress exacerbated the situation. There is no question that resources are necessary: people are arriving every day and, regardless of what solutions you favour, you need money to fund either a quick turnaround for these immigrants or actual due process.

But the money that has been “reprogrammed” is just a Band-Aid solution. It looks like a lot of money but it’s not nearly enough money to deal with the increased numbers.

Everyone is looking for an easy solution that doesn’t cost any money. But when you try to cut corners, you end up paying in the end.


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