An 11-year-old Salvadoran child traveled alone to Los Angeles, hoping to reunite with his mother earlier this year. But unlike many of the stories about unaccompanied minors crossing over to the United States illegally, this case is being used by the Salvadoran government to deter children from leaving the country.
The boy was traveling with a smuggler paid for by his mother. He was caught by immigration officials in Mexico and deported back to El Salvador. Normally, this would be the end of the case. But this year, the number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States has reached record levels. And, under pressure from the United States, some Central American countries have promised to do more to keep children from migrating north.
In El Salvador, the government has taken this case and is using a 2009 child welfare law — Ley de Protección Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia or LEPINA — to punish parents or family members if a child leaves the country alone. Now, the boy’s father and grandmother are facing charges of child neglect.
Using the LEPINA law, the government sent a letter to Sara Ruth Hernandez and Jose Daniel Rivas on June 13, 2014, ordering them to appear in front of government officials who will investigate whether the boy is a victim of child neglect. The state argues that sending a child alone to the United States, passing through a country as violent as Mexico, constitutes child neglect, according to the summons.
Family members said they sent the boy to live with his mother in Los Angeles because gangs were recruiting him. The only way to keep the boy safe was to send him away, according to human-rights activists who are helping the grandmother and father.
“The government has tried so many different ways to stop migration and now they are doing this? It’s strange,” said human-rights attorney Jose Osvaldo Lopez. “What we need is to make sure that the state is not shifting its responsibility to keep its population safe onto the parents.”
That’s what’s happening in this case and it could set a legal precedent for the future, Lopez said.
Cesar Rios, executive director of the Salvadoran Institute for Migrants, believes this is a misguided approach, given the reality of the country.
“Instead of applying a law that criminalizes families for wanting to put their children in a safe place, the government should find a way to keep children safe here,” Rios said.
On July 12, 2014, Salvadoran police found the decapitated body of an 11-year-old boy, Daniel, who had been kidnapped and killed in the municipality of San Pedro Perulapán. The boy lived with his grandmother while his parents lived in the United States, according to news accounts.
Rios said the boy’s parents wanted to bring Daniel to live with them in the U.S. but gangs got to him before the parents could act.
“Imagine, if the boy had migrated north he would have been safe with his the parents,” he said. “But the grandmother would have faced criminal charges.”
Experts say most of the Central American children migrating north are fleeing gang violence.
This year a record number of children illegally crossed the border alone, about 47,017 children under 18. That number has doubled since the previous fiscal year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
President Barack Obama called the influx of children into the United States a “humanitarian crisis.” Officials in Tennessee agreed to take an estimated 909 of those unaccompanied minors, according to data by the Office of Refugee and Resettlement.
Near the Guatemala-Mexico border, the migration of children has slowed since Obama called the situation a crisis.
Ademar Barelli, who is in charge of a migrant shelter in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, said the shelter had 170 minors in May and June but the flow decreased dramatically in July.