Address Root Causes Compelling Flight of Unaccompanied Children from Central America

Authored by Catholic Relief Services


In FY 14, a surge of 68,000 unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America presented themselves to Border Patrol at the United States’ southern border, while a similar number of young family units did the same. Yet the U.S. humanitarian response to date has been inadequate given the scale of need, lacking facilities to adequately host these children and families. After a decrease in the number of arrivals in FY 15, due in large part to pressure on the Government of Mexico to interdict more children through the Southern Border Program, particularly high numbers of children and families arrived in the first six months of 2016.1

High levels of violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, known as the Northern Triangle, combined with crippling corruption and nearly complete impunity, left many children to feel they had no choice but to flee. Many children flee gangs enforcing policies forcing them to either join the gang or be killed, while other children have suffered the killing of family members. Gangs have increasingly collaborated with international drug cartels, making them more ruthless and better-resourced. Most of those vulnerable to gangs or other criminal activity come from poor or broken homes, and are unprotected even in their schools, where gangs force children to act as drug mules.

CRS Experience

At CRS, we believe that youth are part of the solution to the crisis. Many of those fleeing violence are so-called “ni-ni’s” – neither in school nor working. We subscribe to the theory of change that we must interrupt the violence through primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions. Primary intervention seeks to strengthen children and families and their communities before they fall into crisis. This includes programs such as community centers and before-and-after school programs. Secondary intervention aims to provide opportunity and protection to those on the margins of criminal activity, such as youth empowerment programs, such as CRS’ Jovenes Constructores. Tertiary intervention requires helping those in prison reintegrate into society.

CRS programming in the region has sought to strengthen families and education; and to further economic opportunity through youth empowerment, rural revitalization, and internal savings and lending communities. Our flagship Jovenes Constructores program – based on the US Youthbuilders model – helps at-risk youth to learn the soft and hard skills necessary to thrive and be agents of change in their communities.  After succeeding with an 80% retention rate in the pilot with 5,000 youth in El Salvador, the program is now scaling up in various partnerships with the Government of El Salvador, the InterAmerican Development Bank and the Department of Labor’s International Labor Bureau. CRS’ Food for Education program in Intibucá province – one of Honduras’ poorest – increased literacy there by 22% in just three years. Nutritional interventions, better quality education, and improved attendance are all critical factors in this success.  Finally, CRS’ agricultural interventions throughout the region aim to keep rural families together, enabling them to compete in a globalized marketplace.

Recommendations to the U.S. Government

Based on our experience working in Northern Triangle countries, and addressing the current crisis, CRS makes the following recommendations to the U.S. government:

  1. Recognize the crisis for what it is: largely a refugee crisis. Though it is clearly difficult to untangle from traditional economic migration without adequate due process, adequate protection in line with humanitarian and human rights law must be afforded those fleeing. We must simultaneously work to address the root causes of flight over the longer term, by investing in youth and their communities.

  2. Expand and expedite the Central American Minors program. Those fleeing gangs and violence often cannot afford the thousands of dollars charged by coyotes to bring them north, and untold numbers never survive the treacherous journey. Those who brave it suffer abuse, sexual assault, kidnapping, and extortion. The Central American Minors program appropriately adjudicates the refugee cases of youth in-country, or in a third-country for those most at-risk, to obviate the need to flee. Its provision of parole for those who do not obtain refugee status is the right thing to do.  The program must be scaled up and sped up so as to meet the needs of the large numbers who remain in limbo.

  3. Establish Temporary Protected Status for those from particularly high-crime areas. Deportation only puts children and youth further at risk.

  4. Maintain recent increases in investments in the Northern Triangle, especially through Development Assistance. Scaled-up investments in the Northern Triangle provided a total of $750 million in FY16 to pursue USAID’s Strategy for Engagement in Central America. These levels should be maintained for FY17, with continued investments in youth empowerment, education, agricultural revitalization, tertiary intervention, good governance and community policing. Any conditions on assistance to the Federal governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador set forth by legislation should be maintained.

  5. Choose appropriate procurement instruments to meet the objectives of funding. Successfully addressing the root causes of flight in Northern Triangle countries is complex. We recommend the deployment of grant mechanisms to make it possible for programs to work with affected communities and respond to changing environments by being more flexible to allow for more adaptive responses.

  6. End the Southern Border Program with Mexico. Instead the U.S. government should collaborate with the Government of Mexico to improve its protection for unaccompanied youth and adherence to its refugee and asylum laws.

  7. Invest in child welfare systems in the Northern Triangle countries to ensure protection for vulnerable children. This means schools must be established as safe zones, and their quality must be increased. Law enforcement personnel should be better paid and better trained. Robust child welfare services, including foster-care, family reunification and family reintegration services must also be established.

For more information, please contact Jill Marie Gerschutz at

This is the latest data available at the time of this writing


Download Member Insight

Download FABB 2016

Foreign Assistance Briefing Book:   2016  |  2013  |  2011  |  2008