Once Central American children step back into their home country—often after fleeing gang recruitment, violence, and poor economic conditions—they'll need somewhere safe to go. And that's a problem for the so-called Northern Triangle countries that have minimal social services in place to handle an influx of children returning from attempts at crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
As some lawmakers call for speedier deportation, advocates say that without programs and protections in place, repatriation could prove futile.
"If you genuinely believe that you're going to die staying here, you're going to keep trying. You're going to try to survive," said Elizabeth Kennedy, an El Salvador-based Fulbright Scholar who has been interviewing young migrants as they return home.
The U.S. isn't currently deporting unaccompanied minors at a rapid rate, but it's an issue that will come up again in Congress after the August recess. And immigration analysts, nonprofit workers, and researchers are concerned.
"Transporting planeloads of kids back is just setting the system up for failure," said Amy Thompson, an immigration policy analyst. "I mean, there's really no real system in place now." And that won't prevent them from trying to enter the United States again, according to Kennedy.
"There need to be services that address the reasons they left," she said. "There needs to be programs for children and families that are afraid for their lives—either to go to a different part of the country or to be genuinely protected. And that doesn't exist right now."
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank supporting tighter immigration controls, said the U.S. should try to help create those programs if it can. But he's doubtful they would be effective.
"My question is, I'm skeptical that it would actually work," he said, "because a lot of the money would just be stolen and much of what was left would just be wasted in other ways."¦ If there's anything we can do that might have a realistic chance of reducing recidivism, I'm all for it. I'm just skeptical that there's anything really like that that we can do from our end."
In Honduras, buses filled with families and unaccompanied minors caught in Mexico arrive in the country about three times per week, according to Juan Sheenan, Catholic Relief Services country representative in Honduras.
Quickly, they're processed. The new arrivals are interviewed. Afterward, some head straight home to their communities; others stay in the shelter for no more than two to three days.
Catholic Relief Services works with partner agencies to provide a welcome kit with food, drink, and money for transportation back to a new arrival's home community, Sheenan said.
But if the children are sent back in droves, Honduran officials likely won't have the resources to address the return of myriad planes filled with children, Sheenan said. It's not as simple as saying, "Welcome Back."
More staffing, medical supplies, food, and shelter would be needed, and that all costs money. Claims of potential for abuse or violence if a child is returned to their home community should be investigated, Sheenan said.
"They're understaffed now," he said. "So if we're talking about thousands of people coming in on a daily basis, they're going to need more investigators, they're going to need more shelters, and so on."
In El Salvador, repatriated children receive an intake interview and then are sent on their way with help getting home sometimes provided. If it's late at night, they can stay at the shelter until morning, Kennedy said. There's no examination of the root causes of why the children left, nor are the children connected with follow-up services.
Guatemala has the most official process of the three, according to Kennedy. Children are received at one of two shelters. An interview with a child protection officer, migration officer, and a psychologist ensues. Children can stay in the shelters for up to 72 hours, transportation funds are provided if needed, and connections are made with services if they exist in the child's community, Kennedy said.
But in all three countries, more services would be needed to provide a safety net at home if the U.S. begins deporting unaccompanied minors swiftly, and it takes time to establish sustainable programs. An alliance between the government, nonprofit community, and private sector would be imperative to help repatriated children avoid becoming caught in a web of violence and poverty back home, Kennedy said.
"The question is, 'Do I think the capacity could be built?' I do," Kennedy said. "But I don't think the United States should be deporting children until that capacity exists."