WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Why are tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras fleeing their homes to go on a dangerous journey to the United States, often without their parents or other relatives?
The complex backdrop for the surge of children has embroiled President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress as they struggle to discourage the arrival of “unaccompanied minors” who are creating a humanitarian crisis on Texas’ border with Mexico.
The Obama administration estimates that around 90,000 children will arrive by the end of September and rise to 150,000 next year unless steps are taken to reverse the migration.
Here are reasons cited by immigration experts and politicians for the rush of people under the age of 18 arriving in the United States illegally. Taken together, they may have created the “perfect storm” that helps explain what is occurring on the southwestern border but also means there is no easy fix.
In late 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law legislation to combat trafficking of humans for forced sex and labor. The measure created new protections for children who arrive in the United States from non-contiguous countries.
The “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008,” named after a British abolitionist who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, made it more difficult for the U.S. government to quickly deport immigrant minors who were not from Mexico or Canada.
The Obama administration, many immigration experts and members of Congress think this law is encouraging children to flee to the United States.
Criminal gangs related to drug trafficking proliferate in Central America and Mexico and they prey upon children and teenagers to work for them or face physical harm and even death.
For many kids, the only way to escape the violence is by escaping their homeland.
The narcotics trade thrives off a vigorous market for marijuana and other drugs in the United States. Some U.S. officials are tying insufficient funds for fighting drugs in Central America to the waves of child migration. Honduran President Juan Hernandez said U.S.-backed battles against cartels in Colombia and Mexico have pushed drug traffickers into Central America, increasing the violence that is fueling the exodus.
Lawlessness stemming from weak governments, natural disasters and civil unrest help drive migration. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and those of El Salvador and Guatemala have consistently ranked near the top.
The United States also is a magnet for Central American laborers who find jobs ranging from housekeepers and office janitors to farm hands who harvest crops and help birth calves. Once established in the country, immigrant parents often send for their children.
A strengthening U.S. economy, after years of languishing during and after the recession that began in 2007, gives immigrant parents already in the United States - be they legal or undocumented - added reason to send for children still living in Central America.
They believe an improved job market means that they and their children will have even greater opportunity in the United States, another factor encouraging family reunification.
About 65 percent of Hondurans are living at the poverty line and Guatemala’s poverty is among the highest in the region, with malnutrition and child mortality also a problem, according to the World Bank.
Poverty at home coupled with the large and relatively strong U.S. economy to the north create a lure. Many youths who get sent back vow to try again and again.
Children in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras suffer high levels of child abuse. Experts attribute it to a mix of poverty, alcoholism and drug violence. If they can make it to the U.S. border, children who can demonstrate domestic abuse can be eligible for special immigrant status in the United States.
Central American coffee crops are being devastated by a fungus epidemic related to higher temperatures.
According to the International Coffee Organization, 70 percent of coffee crops in Guatemala were affected in the 2012-13 crop year, 74 percent in El Salvador and 25 percent in Honduras.
The problem, which some attribute to climate change contributing to the region’s warming, severely affects farmers’ incomes, creating yet another “push factor” for children to seek a better life in the United States.
Many Republicans blame Obama entirely for the rush of children to the U.S. border
They point to his actions easing deportations of some children who were brought to the United States by their parents before mid-2007. They also cite the administration’s decision to focus deportation efforts on undocumented residents with criminal records instead of those who are raising families, paying taxes and have established deep roots in the United States.
These actions, they argue, have helped human traffickers in Central America market their services by pointing to relaxed enforcement in U.S. immigration laws. In fact, deportations have sharply increased under the Obama administration, which has deported more than 2 million people and earned Obama the title of “deporter in chief” from some immigration groups.
It can take years for juvenile deportation hearings to wind through U.S. immigration courts, leading many to believe that illegal entries will get children some time to establish themselves in the United States, or at least enjoy a temporary reprieve from horrible conditions at home.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism has put Central America in the back seat of U.S. foreign policy priorities.
Not tending to America’s “back yard” has meant sluggish foreign aid and other development initiatives between Washington and Central America.
The United States has spent $800 million since 2008 on the Central America Regional Security Initiative to address arms and drug trafficking, organized crime and shore up policing and government institutions in eight countries, according to the Congressional Research Service.
That figure is dwarfed by the billions Washington spends on Israel, Egypt and more recently Afghanistan.
Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Andrew Hay