Central American children fleeing poverty and gang violence are refugees – often from situations US policies have helped to create – and they should be treated as such.
The arduous journey from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to the border city of McAllen, Texas stretches some 1,500 long miles. To walk it at an average pace—without resting—it would take around three weeks. If you manage to make it without succumbing to the elements—the scorching days and the freezing nights—among the dust and cacti are strangers waiting to kidnap, extort, rape, or even murder you.
Now imagine you are a child.
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It’s a dangerous trip, to put it mildly, but desperate Central American parents are paying thousands of dollars to smugglers to get their children across Mexico and on to a better life in the United States.
In fiscal year 2013, 38,833 children crossed the border into the United States. For fiscal year 2014, the Obama administration expects that number to swell to 90,000, the vast majority of them through Mexico. It’s a humanitarian crisis, and it’s happening on our borders.
Hoping that the U.S. government will deal more leniently with minors than adults, these children take the notoriously dangerous and often deadly trip alone, with no parent or guardian to protect them. How desperate does a parent have to be to risk the lives of their children?
“The gang was going to kill me,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson recalls a child migrant telling him, “and so my grandmother or my father told me they had no choice but to send me to the United States to be with the other parent.”
Pretty desperate, is the answer.
The immigrants have not been met with open arms. As three buses filled with detained young children and their mothers rolled into Murrieta, California, they were met with protesters who jeered, “Go home!” and “Illegals Out!” Referencing a bunk claim that the children were carrying infectious diseases, some signs even urged American parents to “Save Your Kids From Disease!” At one point, protesters began a rousing chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
If these xenophobic protesters had paused to consider the situations in these children’s countries of origin—or the U.S. role in exacerbating them—perhaps they wouldn’t be blocking buses and screaming thinly veiled racist epithets.
These children are refugees—often from situations U.S. policies have helped to create—and they should be treated as such.
Warzones of Origin
Although the children crossing the border hail from countries all over the world, 74 percent of them come from three small countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. A quick glance at the situation in these countries sheds some light on why parents would have their children risk the treacherous and sometimes fatal voyage to come to the United States.
Four years after a coup deposed its democratically elected populist government, Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, and political repression runs rampant throughout the Latin American nation. Human rights activists, coup opponents, and journalists have been murdered with impunity. While President Obama called the coup illegal at the time, the U.S. government has since normalized relations. Today the United States continues to provide assistance to the Honduran military, despite its direct role in human rights abuses.
Gang violence in Honduras is a major reason for the large number of children heading north. In San Pedro Sula, which reportedly has the highest murder rate in the world, gangs are essentially running the city. The only way to survive is to see, hear, and say very little—and to pay the taxes that gangs levy on families. If there’s a murder, it’s safer to stay away from the funeral. Even NGOs and church groups admit that they too submit to gang rules.
Hondurans are also dealing rising inequality, unemployment, and poverty. Extreme poverty had dropped by over a fifth during the populist Zelaya administration. But within just two years of the coup, extreme poverty had jumped by over a quarter. Meanwhile unemployment more than doubled between 2008 and 2012.
In neighboring Guatemala, a devastating civil war that ravaged the country for 36 years has left a legacy of poverty and violence. The origins of the war date back to 1954, when a CIA-backed coup toppled the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, who had planned to nationalize the U.S.-based United Fruit Company and legalize the Communist Party. The coup gave way to an armed insurgency in 1960, which provoked a vicious government crackdown backed by the United States. By 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed or forcibly disappeared. The war was marked by grotesque violence and the genocidal slaughter of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans by government forces.
The former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide last year, but the legacy of the civil war, which ended less than 20 years ago, is still being felt today. Current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has himself been implicated in wartime atrocities, and his 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.
Human rights abuses are not the only type of violence plaguing Guatemala—in 2012 the country of 15 million averaged nearly 100 murders per week.
El Salvador has a similar history. For 12 years a civil war ravaged the small nation, killing some 70,000 people. As in Guatemala, the repressive regime in El Salvador—which was notorious for dispatching paramilitary death squads against civilians—was backed by the United States. At the end of the war, El Salvador saw a huge explosion of gang violence, with the gangs being populated mostly by people who came of age during the civil war.
One family’s nightmare encapsulates the country’s ballooning violence and deteriorating rule of law in the country. In September 2011, Hector Antonio Giron’s 16-year-old daughter was kidnapped by members from Barrio 18—one of the largest gangs in the region. After searching the streets and asking people for clues as to where his daughter had been taken, a man confessed to taking money to drive the girl and a gang member to a ranch near the beach. When the police failed to arrive at the scene, Giron took matters into his own hands. Arriving to discover his daughter being raped, he opened fire with a 9mm pistol, killing a leader of the gang and dispersing the others. The next morning, the gang retaliated by sending young members to murder Giron’s wife.
The Giron family story is not an outlier. Amid a faltering truce between the country’s two largest gangs, the country’s murder rate increased by nearly 50 percent in the first months of this year. Police collusion with gangs with remains common.
The situation in these Central American countries is grim. Confronted with rampant gang violence and extreme poverty, it’s no surprise that children are crossing the border in search of safety and prosperity.
Rethinking Refugee Status
These children did not arrive on America’s doorstep to spread disease, steal jobs, or leech off American taxpayers, as so many xenophobic protesters and pundits have suggested. Like refugees all over the world, they came to survive.
Currently, the U.S. government defines a refugee as “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
Gang violence, considered a common crime, is not included. However, with gangs effectively controlling entire towns and neighborhoods—and causing children to flee hundreds of miles from home—it’s time to rethink who qualifies as a refugee.
After interviewing 400 migrant children and their families, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 60 percent of them had legitimate claims for asylum. Many of these children were running from violent gangs that forced participation. If they are sent back, it is a virtual certainty that some will die.
In order to curb the flow of undocumented children coming into the United States, a massive overhaul of U.S. policies towards Latin American countries is required—as well as a comprehensive fix to our outdated immigration system, which has militarized the U.S. border, created a black market for smugglers, and incentivized unauthorized border crossers by putting legal entry out of reach for millions.
Border hawks say that migrants should “wait in line” to get legal status in the United States. But the line to get in is virtually endless, and for these children and their families, there is no time to wait.