The thousands of children streaming north from Central American countries and being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border is a refugee crisis and must be treated as such.

More than 57,000 children have been arrested since October, and some in the U.S. erroneously describe their arrival as a failure of U.S. immigration policy.

Some lawmakers want to speed up the processing and deportation procedures for children coming from countries other than Mexico. President Obama’s critics accuse him of failing to “secure the border.”

Two factors are important:

The influx began in 2011: a year before changes to U.S. immigration policy that benefit young undocumented immigrants already living here.

  • And, according to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report, one primary reason children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala give for leaving home is their very real, very personal fear of violence.

It is easy to mistake the situation for a failure of the United States’ immigration policy.

It is crucial to understand the difference between the need to overhaul U.S. immigration policy, which is urgent, and this situation.

“The problem is people aren’t recognizing that this is a refugee crisis and you have to deal with it differently,” said immigration attorney and University of Arizona Law Professor Lynn Marcus. “This is not just kids who are coming for a better life. These are kids whose lives are in danger.”

It makes sense that children with relatives already living in the United States, legally or not, would try to come here — especially if the relative is a parent.

But the U.S. isn’t the only country where people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are seeking asylum. According to that same UN report, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize reported a 435 percent increase in applications from those nationals.

One problem with thinking of this as an immigration policy failure is that it feeds the illusion that if the U.S. could just “secure the border,” then people would stop trying to enter the country illegally. That’s never been true, but in this case, it’s especially futile.

The UN report found that 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala were “forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”

Honduras, a country with a smaller population than New York City, has the highest murder rate in the world. El Salvador and Guatemala are in the top five.

It’s difficult for us to understand sometimes, being fortunate to live in Tucson, so far away from such strife.

It’s important to see the equation from the point of view of the families sending their children north.

“All these children, they’ve become targets. So their parents are saying, ‘This is a very dangerous journey and my child may be raped or beaten or killed,’” Marcus said. “‘But if my child stays here, my child will be killed.’ It’s an agonizing and rational decision they’re making.”

Consider the words a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador cited in the report:

The problem was that where I studied there were lots of M-18 gang members, and where I lived was under control of the other gang, the MS-13. The M-18 gang thought I belonged to the MS-13. They had killed the two police officers who protected our school.

They waited for me outside the school. It was a Friday, the week before Easter, and I was headed home. The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one.

After that, I couldn’t even leave my neighborhood. They prohibited me. I know someone whom the gangs threatened this way. He didn’t take their threats seriously. They killed him in the park. He was wearing his school uniform.

If I hadn’t had these problems, I wouldn’t have come here.

A young man facing that danger is simply going to do what many migrants from Central America are now doing: make their way through Mexico to the border and present themselves to U.S. authorities for arrest.

Efforts in Congress to fast-track processing for these children treat them as a byproduct of the broken immigration system rather than part of a refugee crisis. This has the very real potential to return children to the extremely dangerous homes they fled. The legislation, co-sponsored by Congressman Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, does not offer enough protection and is wrong.

Every child should be evaluated by qualified and trained interviewers taking the time necessary to determine if he qualifies for protection under domestic and international law. Each child should be represented by counsel.

Expediency doesn’t serve children in danger.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears Thursdays. Email her at and follow her on Facebook.