File photo: Honduran inmigrants from Progreso await a chance to board the train in Tultitlan, Mexico state on May 17, 2012.
Immigrant or refugee?
01:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

There is an important political distinction in calling the surge of migrant children "refugees"

Partisan bickering over immigration is part of why U.S. is reluctant to coalesce on the issue

UN, humanitarian groups want Central American immigrant kids treated as refugees

White House calls it humanitarian crisis and approaches it with immigration-related solutions

Washington CNN  — 

When thousands of children fled violence and poverty in Iraq, Syria and Darfur and surged toward the borders of other nations, it was seen as a humanitarian crisis and they were considered refugees.

But a huge influx of young migrants from Central America, many telling U.N. workers they are trying to escape drug cartels, gang violence, murder and rape as they stream across the southern border, have so far not been conveyed the same status.

The contrast in what politicians on both sides of the aisle and others have characterized as a humanitarian crisis has introduced new complexity to America’s toxic debate on immigration.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is pushing for the United States, Mexico, and Central American countries to treat many of the children as “refugees,” which could prompt more from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek asylum.

However, the White House has said most won’t qualify as refugees to stay in the country.

“We don’t want to send people back into harm’s way … but the more they expand access to asylum, the more people will feel they have a case,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security for Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit humanitarian organization.

Different approaches

President Barack Obama wants $3.7 billion from Congress to help address the problem. The emergency money would go to detention facilities for housing children while they await hearings and for legal aid to help sift through a backlog of immigration cases.

There is no appetite for Obama’s plan among Republicans in Congress. One of them, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said it would perpetuate the crisis. Others said it’s too expensive and it would be cheaper to simply fly the kids home.

A bipartisan measure by Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, aims to quickly send most young migrants home by changing a 2008 law that now requires all unaccompanied minors who aren’t from Mexico or Canada to receive a hearing before deportation.

The plan, which may have wider support, troubles some lawmakers, especially those in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who worry that children who could possibly qualify for asylum won’t have time to properly plead their cases.

“You can’t in 72 hours go ahead and make the case that your father got murdered in front of you. You can’t make the case that the gang said ‘Join us or die,’ if you don’t have the time to produce documents, affidavits, certificates and what not. And so it is unacceptable to me to basically have a deal that undermines all those rights,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Republican.

A word loaded with political implications

There is important nuance and distinction in calling the surge a “humanitarian crisis” while steering clear of deeming the migrants “refugees,” international policy and humanitarian aid experts say. The difference determines who gets asylum and who goes back.

What’s the difference between immigrant and refugee?

It’s a difference the United Nations is pressing Washington to reconsider.

“We recognize the enormous challenges facing the U.S. and other countries as a result of this large movement of people,” Shelly Pitterman, the U.N. refugees commission regional representative in the United States, said in a statement advocating broader refugee status.

“We’re witnessing a complex situation in which children are leaving home for a variety of reasons, including poverty, the desire to join family, and the growing influence of trafficking networks. Within this movement, there are also children who are fleeing situations of violence at the hands of transnational organized criminal groups and powerful local gangs,” Pitterman said.

Susan Martin, an international migration professor at Georgetown University and the author of several books on humanitarian crises, said U.S. law is ambiguous as to whether the children in this case “meet the definition of a refugee.”

Humanitarian crisis … in America?

They would have to prove they fear persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political perspectives or membership in a particular social group, Martin said.

Violent threats, the type many have apparently told U.N. workers they face from drug cartels and gangs at home, aren’t always enough to qualify for asylum, immigration legal scholars and humanitarian aid workers said.

Humanitarian aid groups argue the level of violence by organized crime syndicates in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is so high that the children are basically fleeing warfare.

However, some anti-immigration groups have argued that by helping the minors, the U.S. government is actually aiding cartels profiting from smuggling.