Migrant children in the US: The bigger picture explained
President Donald Trump has signed an executive order seeking to end the separation of migrant children from their parents at the US border. How did we get to this point and what is the bigger picture?
The policy – which the administration initially defended as necessary to deter illegal immigration – sparked outrage in the US and internationally.
At the heart of it was the Trump administration’s decision to prosecute all adults who try to cross the US-Mexico border illegally, many of whom plan to seek asylum in the US.
Because migrant children could not be put in custody with their parents, they were separated. As a result, more than 2,300 children were removed at the border between 5 May and 9 June.
Here are three key issues that help give a fuller picture of why this has been happening, and why now.
People are fleeing to the US: why?
There are very few detailed statistics on the reasons people migrate to the US but one Pew Research study from 2011 asked people of Hispanic origin what their main reason for moving was: 55% said it was to seek economic opportunities while 24% said it was to be with family.
Countries in Central America are among the poorest in the world while the US is one of the richest, with the world’s largest economy (by GDP).
According to the World Bank, more than 60% of people in Honduras live below the poverty line, with one in five people living in extreme poverty, or on about $1.90 (£1.45) a day.
Poverty rates are declining in two other countries that are major sources of migrants to the US – Mexico and El Salvador – but they both remain at about 40%.
President Trump has repeatedly condemned economic migrants, saying two months after he launched his candidacy that “they’re taking our manufacturing jobs, they’re taking our money.” Many studies say that immigration produces net gains for the US economy.
There is evidence of one other growing factor for migration: violence.
“We leave our countries under threat. We leave behind our home, our relatives, our friends.”
Maritza Flores, from El Salvador, was one of about 1,200 people who travelled in a so-called “caravan” of migrants north through Mexico in April, headed for the US border.
“Many people think we left because we are criminals,” Ms Flores told the BBC at the time. “We’re not criminals – we’re people living in fear in our countries. All we want is a place where our children can run free – where they’re not afraid to go out to the shops.”
Gang violence is rife in El Salvador and Honduras. According to UN figures, the two nations have the two highest homicide rates in the world.
Rights groups cite the influence of armed gangs who act with impunity – as well as the targeting of women and LGBTI people – as key factors for the high homicide rates.
Among the most prevalent groups is MS-13, a brutal street gang that started in the US but is now thought to have at least 60,000 members in Central America.
The gang is said to recruit at-risk and poor teenagers and demand they commit murder as an initiation rite, often using a machete. In El Salvador, MS-13 controls entire neighbourhoods.
Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of people travelling to the US because they fear persecution by gangs like MS-13.
People seeking asylum in the US can request a “credible fear” interview if returning home would put their life at risk. An asylum officer then tries to establish if their request is based on a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership of a particular group, including a gang.
In the 2012 fiscal year, there were 13,880 credible fear applications. Five years later, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, there were 78,564 applications, and the vast majority were deemed to be justified in both years.
In 2017, the highest number of credible fear applications came from citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three countries with high rates of gang violence.
Mr Trump’s Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has said the credible fear system has been exploited. The fact applicants who passed an initial interview were released pending a full interview “created even more incentives for illegal aliens to come here and claim a fear of return”, Mr Sessions said. Mr Trump has been keen to raise the threshold for what counts as “credible fear”.
In May, the UN’s refugee body said 294,000 refugees from north and central America were registered worldwide during 2017, an increase of 58% on the previous year.
“We hear repeatedly from people requesting refugee protection, including from a growing number of children, that they are fleeing forced recruitment into armed criminal gangs and death threats,” a UN statement said.
As the number of people requesting credible fear interviews has increased, so too has the number of people being detained at the US border.
In April, 50,924 people were held or denied entry while trying to cross the border, compared with 15,776 in the same month last year.
The numbers had dropped significantly in the months after Mr Trump’s election, but have since picked up, which is normal in spring.