El Salvador ambassador: US proposed child-only migrant flights

The US is considering sending planeloads of unaccompanied minor migrants home, according to El Salvador ambassador

A surge of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America is currently overwhelming the U.S. immigration system. To expedite their return to their home countries, the United States is considering chartered flights specifically for these children, according to El Salvador's ambassador to the United States.

Since May, at least 9,000 unaccompanied minors have traveled into the U.S. illegally, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Unlike children from Mexico or Canada, Central American children are prevented by U.S. law from being immediately deported. Instead, they must be given shelter and moved through deportation proceedings. Most end up staying for years.

But within the past few weeks, Ambassador Rubén Zamora said, U.S. officials approached the Salvadoran government with the idea of sending a flight filled with children back to El Salvador.

“Any flight — I don’t like it,” Zamora told “America Tonight.”  “ … It doesn’t make sense at all, because you send them back tomorrow and three days or four days after, or one week after, they will try to enter [again].”

El Salvador is not currently receiving any child-only flights, according to Zamora. But he added that there are as many as seven adult-filled flights every week, each holding approximately 120 deportees.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to “America Tonight’s” repeated requests for information about the child-only flights and whether that would be a change in policy. 

U.S. law and child migrants

Rubén Zamora, El Salvador's ambassador to the U.S.

So far in 2014, 47,000 unaccompanied minors have already entered the United States illegally — a 92 percent increase from last year. The enormous influx, which President Barack Obama called "an urgent humanitarian situation," has sent government agencies scrambling.

Zamora said El Salvador would not oppose the flights as long as the United States complied with the current laws in place to protect children.

The Border Patrol detains children from Central America for 72 hours before they are sent to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency tries to reunite them with family members or places them in foster care, as it is required to “act in the best interest of the child.”

However, from the minute they are taken into U.S. custody, deportation proceedings are initiated against children. Ultimately, an immigration judge decides whether they are allowed to stay. A variety of factors are taken into consideration, including the danger the child faces if returned home, and whether the child is trying to reunite with family in the U.S.

Zamora said El Salvador would accept child flights only if all passengers had seen a judge, and if officials had attempted to reunite the children with relatives in the U.S. He also said it’s important to make sure the children deported by plane to El Salvador are actually citizens of that country, and not another Central American nation.

“Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Mexicans — we speak the same language, and in the United States they don’t distinguish between the accent of each of our countries,” he said. “And in that sense, how are we going to deal with a child that is sent to San Salvador as a Salvadoran whose parents are Honduran or Guatemalan? We don’t know what to do with that child.” 

Teaching kids not to flee

Materials from a Salvadoran educational campaign that aimed to inform teens about the dangers of illegal immigration.

Zamora compared the flood of child migrants out of his country to a “revolution.”

“For me, it’s painful — the whole situation of immigration,” he said. “That’s why we’re very interested in trying to solve the problem as much as possible in our country. The question of security — and the question of economic opportunity for the people.”

He blamed human smugglers for spreading false information about what happens once a child crosses into the United States illegally.

“They tell [migrants] that if they bring children — then the children are going to be OK, are going to be reunited with the family, and there is no chance that they could be deported,” he said. “That is not true.” 

In 2013, El Salvador launched a pilot educational campaign, supported by the United Nations Population Fund, to inform teens about the dangers of illegal immigration. The government distributed cartoon pamphlets and graphic posters to a few hundred people, which detailed the risks of making the trek to the United States.

One poster depicts a young adult lying in a hospital bed with a broken arm and leg. The flier includes a message in Spanish: “Thousands and thousands of young people see their life ruined because they lose an arm or a leg or both in some accident on the way.”

Zamora said the educational material worked to deter some young teens from coming to the United States, but the project was short-lived. 

“We are not going to solve the problem with that and only that,” he said. “We need to extend the program to cover much more towns and certainly to enter into our national TV, radio [and] newspaper.”

The U.S. is also trying to stem the problem at the source. Last week, the White House announced that El Salvador would be among three Central American countries to receive financial aid aimed at curbing violence.

El Salvador will receive $25 million over five years as part of a crime and violence prevention USAID program. The country will also receive additional aid to assist efforts in developing and improving its repatriation centers.

“Any money is welcome for that purpose, and we are very thankful for that,” said Zamora. “But don’t make too much illusion about that. That is not going to solve the problem.” 

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