In March, a little girl died scared and alone in a shelter in Mexico, lost on a perilous journey from the mountains of Ecuador to join her family in New York, more than 3,000 miles away. The death of 12-year old Noemi Alvarez Quilloy puts a tragic, human face on the U.S. failure to adopt meaningful immigration reform.
It also underscores how needlessly dangerous it has become for families living on either side of the U.S. border to be “whole”. Sadly, Noemi’s death is not the first, nor the last, we will see. According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the number of unaccompanied minors caught entering the United States is expected to reach 60,000 for the year ending Sept. 30, 2014, an increase from 6,560 in 2011.
In cases such as Noemi’s, parents pay “coyotes” — human smugglers — to bring their children to this country.
The route is dangerous, illegal and expensive: According to the Department of Homeland Security, smugglers’ fees have risen to between $3,000 and $10,000 for migrants from Latin America, who make up 70 percent of those trying to cross the border from Mexico.
Migrant children often face abuse and violence at the hands of coyotes and the many other shadowy characters they come across on their long, harrowing journeys, says the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. In Noemi’s case, she and the man her parents hired were detained in Mexico. Her death by hanging in a children’s shelter was ruled a suicide.
In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, the focus must be on prevention of this activity. Ecuador is working with our consulates across the United States to counsel parents to put the safety of their children above their unbreakable yearning to see and hold them again. Family reunification is the primary reason that Ecuadorean children attempt the risky journey.
The problem is much bigger than Ecuador. As a matter of fact, most U.S. government statistics put Ecuador at the low end of unauthorized immigration pool.
According to the Pew Center for Hispanic Trends, there are approximately 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Of those, 6 million hail from Mexico alone. Approximately 100,000 are from Ecuador.
Many of these immigrants are parents who led the way for their children and other family members, fleeing violence, instability and inequality in their home countries.
The U.S. government has attempted to stem the tide of illegal crossings — and the appeal of coyotes — by issuing a “warning” to migrants thinking of crossing the border that they will not qualify for any U.S. immigration reform laws, such as amnesty.
Indeed, the Senate-passed reform bill, since shot down by the U.S. House of Representatives, provided a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, but only those who entered the United States prior to Dec. 30, 2011. In addition to sending a message to those considering the perilous journey now, the Senate bill would have helped parents who had been in the United States as undocumented immigrants prior to this date, as was the case for Noemi’s parents.
Short of immigration reform, there is more we can do in Latin America to nip the undocumented migration process in the bud.
For example, Ecuador’s economy is among the fastest growing in Latin America. After decades of political and economic instability, the government of President Rafael Correa has made the country an attractive place to live, work and invest.
The promise of a better life in the United States is among the primary reasons parents have made the dangerous journey to the border in the first place. Ecuadoreans can now find that in Ecuador. Many other countries in Latin America are also growing quickly.
We must do a better job of communicating this to our families.
We must also support immigration reform that creates a humane path for citizenship for the many families from Latin America who live and work in the U.S. illegally.
Only this can put an end to the tragedy and violence children face each day trying to reach their families.
Nathalie Cely is Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States.