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Immigrants or refugees—who are the kids on the Texas/Mexico border?

Why would you send your children to another country—on a journey both you and your children knew to be dangerous, a journey that will cost most or all of what you have, with an outcome that’s uncertain?

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem to believe that parents in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala don’t know how dangerous the trip from these countries to the United States can be. If families knew, they wouldn’t send their kids here.

What if we assume that parents and families in Central America are aware of the dangers and are making a rational choice? If we assume that families in Central America love their children as we love our children, we will understand this complex situation better.

Why kids are coming
In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. government expects that 90,000 children who are either unaccompanied or separated from their families will cross the border into the United States, most of them through Mexico. 38,833 kids crossed the border in fiscal year 2013. Seventy-four percent of these kids come from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The United National High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) registered an increase in the number of asylum-seekers—children and adults—from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala beginning in 2009, not only in the U.S. but also in surrounding countries. Combined, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize documented a 435 percent increase in asylum applications since 2009 from those three countries.

Between May and August, 2013, UNCHR conducted 400 individual interviews with children, approximately 100 from each of these countries—Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, to find out why these children were leaving their countries of origin, and whether any of them were in need of international protection. All of the children interviewed were part of the “surge” of immigrants to the U.S. arriving after October 2011.

The UNCHR study found that at least 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection” (Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection, UNCHR). The two over-arching patterns of harm that emerged from the interviews were violence by organized criminal actors and violence in the home. Forty-eight percent of children interviewed shared experiences of being personally affected by the violence of organized, armed, criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs, or State actors. Twenty-one percent of children reported surviving abuse and violence in their homes by caretakers. Both issues—violence in the home, and violence at the hand of organized, armed actors—are internationally recognized as legitimate reasons for offering asylum to children.

In the U.S., these issues may justify the use of a special immigrant juvenile visa (SIJ). Reporting for the Houston Chronicle on August 14, Lomi Kriel interviewed David Thronson, a law professor at Michigan State University who specializes in SIJ issues. According to Thronson, “when we work with children in any other situation in this country we generally talk about what’s in the best interest of the kids, that’s what we use as our yard stick. But this is the only place in immigration law where the best interest of the child is mentioned.”

According to Kriel, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has estimated that at least a quarter of all unaccompanied kids who arrived in the U.S. in fiscal year 2011 could—under current law–be eligible for special immigrant juvenile visas.

Why kids are leaving
Honduras currently leads the world in murder rates, and the top three municipalities sending children to the U.S. are all in that country. Five years ago, a military coup deposed the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, with backing from the U.S. The leader of the ruling National Party supporting the coup, Juan Hernández, ran for president last fall against Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. Although Castro de Zelaya was ahead in the polls leading up to the election, Hernandez, who ran on the promise of putting “a soldier on every corner” won.

According to a report filed by Dan Beeton on June 28, 2014 with Al Jazeera America, even as President Hernández has made a militarized policing approach the cornerstone of his new administration, efforts to reform the police have failed. Evidence of police death squads began to emerge over a year ago. The U.S. State Department has defended its support for the police as being the lesser of two evils. The State Department is now prepared to spend more money to back Hernández’s brutal regime.

El Salvador
El Salvador has the second highest murder rate. Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright Fellow working with child and youth migrants who returned to El Salvador from Mexico and the US, conducted a study in which she interviewed 322 youth between January and May 2014 about why they left. In “No Childhood Here: Why Central American Children are Fleeing Their Homes,” Kennedy reports that 59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats or violence as a reason for emigration. Males feared most assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, while females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of those same groups. About half the minors Kennedy interviewed reported hearing gunshots nightly.

The U.S. has played a role in the explosion of gang violence in El Salvador, which has roots in the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. During the war, the U.S. backed a repressive regime that attacked citizens with paramilitary death squads. A culture of violence ensued, which today’s gang leaders grew up in—Salvadoran gang members also exported violent gang culture from L.A.

In 2012, the two largest and deadliest street gangs—the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18—agreed to a cease-fire, but the truce has been crumbling. In May 2014, the weekend before the new president, Sánchez Cerén, took office, 81 people were murdered, including six who were shot when a group of gunmen dressed in road worker uniforms boarded a bus and began firing.

Guatemala, too, has a history of violence and repression supported by the U.S. The C.I.A. backed a coup against a democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, before Arbenz could nationalize the United Fruit Company and legalize the Communist Party. The coup prompted an armed response, which led to an even more vicious government crackdown backed by the U.S. A thirty-six year civil war followed, ending in 1996.

Although the former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, was convicted of genocide last year, the current president has been implicated in wartime atrocities as well. In addition, as Nathalie Babtiste reports in Foreign Policy in Focus (7/18/14), President Molina’s “government has presided over the largest escalation of attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala since the civil war. In 2013 alone, attacks on journalists, indigenous leaders, unionists, and judicial workers increased by a whopping 126 percent.”

Conservatives cast a long, blind eye to history
The counter-narrative to the UNCHR report was embodied in the group of protestors who met the bus full of unaccompanied minors in near the San Diego/Mexico border with cries of “go home.” The counter-narrative is simple: send the “illegal immigrants” back, regardless of age, regardless of outcome.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times published on August 16, Cindy Carcamo quotes Hector Hernandez, director of a morgue in San Pedro Sula, who explains that many youngsters deported from the U.S. to Honduras “return just to die.” Hernandez told Carcamo that “at least five, and perhaps as many as 10, of the 42 children slain here since February had been recently deported from the U.S.”

But anti-immigrant fever is hot. Roy Beck’s website, NumbersUSA, has an interactive map on its website called “not in my backyard” to help citizens see and protest the possibility of housing “illegal aliens” ( Bill Halsan (R), the governor of Tennessee made a big fuss about the deleterious effects of allowing refugee children to come to his state, complaining in a letter to the president that while Tennessee is a welcoming state, “an influx of unaccompanied immigrant children to the state, with little information being made available to the public or state leaders, creates confusion and could be very problematic.” Dave Heineman (R), governor of Nebraska, took a similar pubic position.

No one advocating for deporting the children is willing to consider the arc of history, nor the role of U.S. interven-tions in the Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, nor are they willing to allow that we bear responsibility for the consequences of our actions. This blind eye to history casts a long and ominous shadow, and it clouds our current collective vision.

What’s being proposed
Under the Bush Administration, Congress established rules about how to handle children who cross our borders. Some additional protections for children were added under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008.

Republicans want to repeal these provisions, which require that child migrants who are not from Mexico be taken into custody, screened, and transferred within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS is charged with finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long-term foster care.

According to a Mother Jones report, in fiscal 2011, ORR had 53 shelters that housed 6,560 kids. By 2013, there were 80 shelters with nearly 25,000 kids. When the surge began, the feds temporarily put kids up in used dormitories on military bases (which is why JBLM was a potential site as well). ORR is short on beds.

The Border Patrol, which is in charge of screening kids, is short-staffed and not adequately prepared to interview children. The Obama administration has asked for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to handle the children and families who are here, and to try to deter future entries. About ten percent of that would be allocated to increase Border Patrol’s ability to screen and house children—child welfare advocates object to this approach. The Senate appears willing to allocate $2.7 billion, with funds going for shelter and legal representation for immigrant children. The House wants the funds it is willing to allocate, $659 million, to help send the National Guard to the U.S. border.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, child advocates, and others are advocating that the current laws to protect children not be repealed. Instead, in their document “Kids First: A Response to the Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis”, they argue that our collective response should focus on meeting the needs of the children and ensuring their safety post-processing rather than focusing on “increasing ineffective border security.” As well, they argue, we need to address the root causes of migration, and improve resources and coordination.

The presidents of Honduras and Guatemala seem uninterested in addressing root causes; they want more money to further militarize their countries. In June, the Obama administration announced that it would provide $18.5 million in additional funding to Honduras, plus additional funds for ongoing bilateral aid for military cooperation. This money is being funneled through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The U.S. has already spent $800 million on the initiative since 2008, but drug and gang violence in the region has only worsened. In spite of this evidence, which mirrors the results of Plan Columbia in Columbia, at the end of the July in a meeting with President Obama, Presidents Hernández and Molinas asked for a new robust militarized initiative modeled on Plan Columbia.

More than 100 members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2014, asking him to stop funding the military in Honduras because of the egregious record of human rights violations. The letter appears to have made no difference. The Obama administration seems dangerously or willfully blind to the consequences of its policies to militarize right wing governments in Central and South America. As Héctor Silva Avalos pointed out in an article in the New York Times on July 8, “rather than push for desperately needed political and economic reforms in Central America, Washington has focused on ‘citizen security’ programs in partnership with the same elites and security forces that, through negligence or corruption, have long been part of the violence problem.”

Given all this, what are families in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to do? More to the point, what should we do?

Emily Lardner teaches at The Evergreen State College and co-directs The Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service of the college.

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