Mexico City (CNSNews.com) – A surge of migrant children and families fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador attempting to enter the U.S. via Mexico is not slowing down in spite of the apprehension of tens of thousands of Central American migrants by the U.S. Border Patrol, according to a report issued by UNICEF.
The massive flow of families and children continues at the same time that the U.S. government has announced it will expand a program allowing refugee minors from the violence-torn region of Central America to enter the U.S. legally.
UNICEF reports that nearly 26,000 unaccompanied children and approximately 29,700 individuals traveling as families were stopped at the U.S. border in the first six months of 2016. The majority were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The report said some 16,000 Central American migrants were apprehended in Mexico before reaching the border in the same period.
The three Central American nations “have some of the world’s highest murder rates,” according to the UNICEF report.
“The flow of refugee and migrant children from Central America making their way to the United States shows no sign of letting up,” it concludes.
The number of Central American families and children stopped at the border beginning in October of last year doubled from a year ago, according to the Pew Research Center.
Meanwhile the U.S. government has announced plans to widen its consideration for legal entry of Central American minors with parents living legally in the U.S.
The Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program is currently restricted to minors – and in some cases to a “parent of the qualifying child” that is also living in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The program will now be opened up to the minors’ caregivers, as well as to a biological parent of a minor with a spouse living in the US, and also to adult children of Central Americans living legally in the U.S., according to the Dept. of Homeland Security website.
The program expansion was announced last month, although a DHS spokesperson could not say when the changes would take effect.
The program was originally restricted to unmarried children under the age of 21 living in the three Central American countries, with a parent 18 years or older legally in the US.
In some cases, a parent of the minor could be considered for U.S. entry.
The expansion will open the program to non-minor children, namely sons and daughters 21 years of age or older, with a parent legally in the U.S.
It will also allow consideration of “caregivers” of minors in the Central American countries where the caregiver is related to the parent living legally in the U.S.
And the expansion will allow a “biological parent” of a qualifying minor where the biological parent is living in one of the three Central American countries, to be considered for entry into the U.S.
According to Salvador Stadthagen, the director of the USAID-sponsored youth program Honduran Youth Alliance, family members living in the U.S. are the “pull factor” behind the surge of migrant children fleeing violent crime in Central America.
“A lot of these kids already have family in the U.S. What we have noticed is that when things get really bad in a community such as the killing of a neighbor or a cousin or brother, then the mother and the father in the U.S. sell whatever they have to sell to get their kids out.”
Many of the Central American minors, Stadthagen said, “have never known their mothers or fathers. Or the fathers left when the mothers were pregnant or when the kids were very young.”
Drug-related gang violence was “fueling” the migrant surge north to Mexico and the U.S., he said.
Outreach workers like Stadthagen, as well a missionary and local pastor in Honduras, told CNSNews.com they have seen significant progress in reducing the violence, with improved policing and by providing alternatives to youths who are either forced to join local gangs or flee the country.
Violence and murder rates have gone down in the community of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 3.5 miles north of the capital of Tegucigalpa, according to Paul Hutton of the Denver-based Mission’s Door evangelical group.
Local pastor Arnold Linares told CNSNews.com an “entire generation of youth” has been lost to the crime and violence, but that now, “we have seen a change in the community.”
“We are creating a model for the country. We want them to know that the heart of man can be changed by God.”