Child Migration: Family Separation and Other Humanitarian Consequences

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Story by Kathleen Salanik, National Headquarters, Director of Restoring Family Links

Each year thousands of unaccompanied minors cross the southern US border. They leave their homes and families behind embarking on a long, dangerous trek. International migration fueled by political and economic complexities separates many families.  At the American Red Cross, the Restoring Family Links program aims to lessen the burden of family separation by putting migrants, refugees and other displaced persons in touch with their loved ones. Recently a Red Cross caseworker in Chicago assisted a boy who was smuggled to the US and had lost his backpack containing contact information for his family members both in the US and back home in Honduras. We worked with our Red Cross colleagues at the Honduran Red Cross and after rigorous searching they located the boy’s mother. His mother was then able to put him in touch with relatives in the US who could act as his sponsor so that he could be released from the detention center.  This is just one example of the plight of children traveling alone to the US.

Earlier this year, I attended a briefing by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on an assessment trip they took to Central America and Mexico to learn about root causes of child migration. The findings are, unfortunately, not surprising. Violence, gangs, economic insecurity and instability leave families with few options. Although choosing to migrate has many known risks, these perils are often more acceptable than the alternatives.

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One story that was told at the briefing was from their visit to a return center in El Salvador where families wait to receive their relatives who have been apprehended by immigration authorities and are being deported back home. The team from USCCB met with mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who were waiting for kids being returned from Mexico. A psychologist was there to mentally prepare the women for the possible stories they may hear from their children by describing the dangers of migration including muggings, rape, extortion, and train accidents. When the briefing was over, the USCCB representatives spoke with the women and learned that they were not surprised at all by the psychologist’s report. The dangers of migration are well known. Girls are put on birth control before they leave because rape is almost expected. When the women were asked why they allow the kids to migrate knowing the risks, the reply was simple and straightforward – “we know the dangers but are left with no choice. We can’t protect them here so we hope that they can make it to the US to find a better life.”

As the extent of this humanitarian tragedy continues to unravel, tens of thousands of minors continue to embark on a treacherous journey seeking a better, more secure environment. This year it is estimated that 60,000 of these kids who reach the United States will end up in the custody of the US Government who, in turn, will seek to place many of them in foster care with family or friends.  While the long-term effects of their difficult migratory journey are unknown, it is my hope that the Red Cross can make a small impact by helping to connect them with family back home. In some cases, the Red Cross may be able to provide that vital phone call where a parent’s fear is relieved when they hear their child say “I am safe.”