Timeline on Immigration

Hemispheric Migration: Interlocking Causes

George Brant grounded Tender Age in real-world phenomena: a Walmart turned detention center; stories from Sweden and Australia of a strange and hyper-specific syndrome affecting asylum-seeking children; young refugees to the US traveling either alone or separated from their families.

Child migration from Central America to the United States is driven by a number of factors. The so-called “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have had some of the highest murder rates in the world, and children seeking asylum from these countries come from the most violent parts of these countries.

The sources of this violence are contested by various analysts and migrant aid organizations, but common factors include:

Shifting US Policy:

Unaccompanied Minors (2014)

In 2011—two years into the drought that would create the “Dry Corridor”—the US began to see an increase in the number of people seeking asylum in the US from the Northern Corridor, including of unaccompanied children. These numbers spiked in 2014, when the US saw 77% more unaccompanied minors and 300% more family units seeking asylum from violence, largely from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. The asylum system that Congress had in place in 2014 was adequate for 6,000-8,000 children. That year saw 68,541 applicants. 

In response, the Obama administration created temporary shelters for unaccompanied children, created a system of temporary courts to process asylum claim, and co-funded programs with the Mexican government to help them deport asylum-seekers before they reached the US border.

Most of the unaccompanied children—an estimated 90%—were released to relatives already living in the US to await their asylum hearings, which would grant them temporary status or led to their deportation.

Family Separation Policy: 2017 (Unofficial) and 2018 (Official)

Donald Trump ran on the promise of restricting access to the asylum process for all immigrants, although his administration targeted the border with Mexico in its rhetoric and policies. Where the Obama administration prioritized the deportation of felons, gang members, and persons proven in court to pose a national security risk, the Trump administration guidance recommended deportation for all “criminal offences,” including attempting entry to the United States without proper documentation, which is a misdemeanor under US law.  

In April of 2018, after weeks of denying its existence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced an official “zero-tolerance” policy for improper entry to the US, making official what had been happening frequently in practice. Because the Justice Department can’t prosecute children alongside their parents, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chose to deport all adults, leaving children, who had previously been kept with their families if they’d traveled with them or placed with relatives already living in the US, to be sent to long-term facilities, like the one in Tender Age.  

Reuniting Families: Ongoing Work

By late June, 2018, the Trump administration was facing pressure from prominent Republican politicians to end its zero-tolerance policy and as of June 23, 2018, the administration officially ordered that families be held together while they face deportation proceedings. DHS claimed that it had a “central database” for tracking migrants, although no evidence of the database was found.  

According to a June 8 press release from the Biden administration’s Task Force on the Reunifications of Families, the DHS has identified 3,913 children who were separated from their families in 2017 and 2018. While some reunifications have taken place, the Task Force is still looking for family members for the 2,127 children, working with the ACLU and other non-governmental organizations who have led this work over the past four years. 

—Adrien-Alice Hansel