With more and more Central American children attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, the number of unaccompanied girls caught at the boundary has been increasing faster than the number of boys, according to new government data released Friday. Researchers said the situation could spring from increasing violence against girls and women in their own countries, possibly linked to gang activity.
In the past year, 13,008 unaccompanied Central American girls under the age of 18 have been caught trying to cross – a 77 percent jump from 7,339 the year before last – according to data from the Department of Homeland Security analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
And while the recent surge in child migrants has come mainly from three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – girls from Honduras made up 5,300 of the 13,008 girls caught at the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s compared to 911 girls from Mexico, 3,792 from El Salvador and 2,699 from Guatemala.
In comparison, the number of unaccompanied Central American boys under 18 rose just 8 percent in the last fiscal year, according to Pew, which obtained the DHS data by filing a Freedom of Information Act request about number of minors apprehended at the border between Oct. 1, 2012 and May 31, 2014.
However, far more boys overall attempt the dangerous journey – 33,924 unaccompanied boys were caught at the border so far in fiscal year 2014, which began in October 2013, versus 31,420 in fiscal year 2013.
When broken down by age, the biggest difference between boys and girls was among teenagers. Some 9,597 unaccompanied teenage girls were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year, a 62 percent increase, while unaccompanied teenage boys increased by just 2 percent.
But the number of migrant children under the age of 12 has surged the most –the girls by 140 percent, and the boys by 100 percent, Pew said.
The Pew researchers cited a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report released in March 2014 (PDF), which said burgeoning gang violence and extremely high murder rates in their home countries was a major reason why so many young Central Americans began fleeing their home countries for the United States starting in 2011. That included young girls’ fear of sexual violence inflicted by gang members.
And Honduran President Juan Hernandez on Thursday blamed unclear U.S. immigration policies for the growing number of Honduran kids who are leaving their country and attempting to reach the U.S.
But as to the question of why more girls in particular are attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, neither Pew nor the UNHCR provided any clues.
In terms of both participating in and suffering from gang violence in Central America, “by far, the largest number of victims are young men,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, an independent Washington-based research group. “But what gets overlooked is that the increase in violence against women has gone up precipitously,” she said, though she cautioned that she could only speak to the increase in violence against women in El Salvador.
An estimated 57,000 children have been detained in the U.S. in the last year alone for trying to cross the border illegally, according to government figures – a rise that has clogged understaffed immigration centers and drawn the ire of some residents of U.S. border towns.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Friday met at the White House with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to discuss the child migrant crisis.