06/28/2012 09:44 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

The Changing Face of Migration: When Will the U.S. Response Change As Well?

In the media and in popular culture, the face of unauthorized migration is commonly that of the single male, coming to the United States to work and support his family back home. Although this image is repeated and reinforced by policy makers, popular media and politicians, in reality it is no longer the only face of unauthorized migration across our Southwest border.

Migration by adults for economic reasons has decreased dramatically in recent years. In fact, the Pew Research Center recently released a report stating that net migration from Mexico has reached 0 percent, meaning that as many people are returning to Mexico from the U.S. as are coming here. In addition, the Chief of U.S. Border Patrol recently testified before Congress that unauthorized migration has decreased 53 percent since 2008, and numbers are less than one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 2000.

But these statistics do not tell us who is coming, or why they are exposing themselves to the dangerous and harrowing journey to seek protection in the United States.

Unauthorized migrants in the United States are increasingly children and families fleeing violence in their home countries. Recently we have seen a huge surge in the numbers of immigrant children coming alone. In just the past seven months, the number of unaccompanied immigrant children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement has doubled. They now project that up to 15,000 children will enter their shelters this year alone. This is the highest number since the agency began caring for these children in 2003.

Migrant service organizations have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of families, including mothers and fathers with young children, grandparents traveling with young grandchildren and siblings traveling together. The unimaginable hardships these families face on the way to the United States are a testament to the desperation and fear that drive them to leave their home countries.

Our border with Mexico is at the center of a humanitarian crisis, and our outdated and inappropriate laws and practices are hampering our ability to respond. The U.S. government's migration control policies, designed in the 1990s, were intended to prevent unauthorized migration through deterrence and use of sheer force of numbers of agents patrolling the border. In 2005, Customs and Border Protection modified the deterrence strategy away from "catch and release" towards a policy of "enforcement with consequences." These consequences include detention in penal facilities, repatriation through remote and unsafe areas, separation of family members traveling together and immigration-related criminal charges. In using these strategies, Customs and Border Protection sought to deter the single person looking for better economic opportunities. They were not intended to, nor are they, deterring the migrants crossing now--unaccompanied immigrant children and families seeking protection.

Despite clear mandates in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and in asylum law, Customs and Border Protection does not adequately screen minors or others to determine whether they have a fear of returning to their country or are vulnerable to trafficking. The Women's Refugee Commission and many other nongovernmental organizations have been offering our expertise to the agency for years to help them improve their trainings for agents and to help monitor compliance with these international and U.S. laws, with little to no response. Our visits to the border, and interviews with unaccompanied children in particular, show that many children who are eligible for protection are instead being repatriated against their will to dangerous and exploitative situations.

To make matters worse, the agency carries out these dangerous and inappropriate policies with little or no oversight, compromising the safety and well-being of vulnerable populations. It's time for the U.S. government to make the right change in its approach to immigrants.

Co-authored by Michelle Brané, Director, and Jennifer Podkul, Program Officer, Detention and Asylum