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Running for Their Lives: The Child Migrant Crisis

US policies stoked the gang violence Central American kids are fleeing.

A Central American migrant looking towards the horizon. (Photo: Peter Haden / Flickr)

As the Department of Homeland Security tries to deliver busloads of Central American children and families to places of temporary safety, shrieking demonstrators in California, Arizona, and other states are barring the way and demanding these kids be dumped over the border.

These outbursts resemble the ugly mentality that, in 1939, prompted our government to send a ship with more than 900 German Jews aboard back to Europe where many were eventually killed by the Nazis. Like them, many of the Central American children will be murdered if they are returned home.

That’s what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concluded after interviewing hundreds of these kids.

“The M-18 gang told me if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive,” said a 17-year-old boy identified as Alfonso.

“I was threatened by a gang. In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” said 15-year-old Maritza. Like Alfonso, she fled to the United States.

Our government has apprehended more than 50,000 children so far. Protestors objecting to their arrival call them “invaders,” but these kids are refugees. They travel here on their own out of desperation — to escape murder, rape and conscription into gangs. And the United States bears much responsibility for the violence they’re fleeing.

Most of these kids are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the murder rate is spiking. The U.S. rate is 4.7 murders per 100,000 people. The rates in El Salvador and Guatemala are nearly 10 times as high, and in Honduras, 20 times — 90.4 killings per 100,000.

Children are in the crosshairs: More than a thousand young people were murdered in Honduras last year, and murders of children under 17 are up 77 percent over last year. One 13-year-old in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula was slain for trying to quit a gang. His 7-year-old brother was tortured and killed after he went to find him.

Why is this our problem? For some of us, the fact that frightened children have turned up on our doorstep is sufficient. If that’s not enough, how about accepting responsibility for the problems our government created?

The gangs ravaging Central America are the fruits of U.S. deportation policies, America’s failed Drug War, and instability stoked by decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America.

Even after Nicaragua’s “contra” conflict and El Salvador’s civil war simmered down, our government continued to destabilize the region. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. deported thousands of gang members convicted of various crimes “back” to the Central American countries where they were born. Those youngsters had imbibed the gang culture in the United States. But now, Uncle Sam told Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, they’re your problem.

Many of these young people had come here as toddlers. English was their primary language, and they had no real ties to their supposed homelands. Their prospects were dim: With few lawful skills, they unleashed their gang activities in their new homelands, including the illegal drug trade.

The war on drugs is a huge failure and hasn’t made a dent in U.S. illicit drug use. But criminalizing U.S. drug use has meant staggering profits — in excess of $4 billion each year — for Central American gangs. That money finances the violence and corruption that overwhelm local governments, and so the gangs of Central America have metastasized.

And so, too, children are confronted by killers. “They asked me who was my father,” 16-year-old David told a UN interviewer. “I told them my father was dead. They told me to say goodbye because I was going to join my father.”

No wonder Central American parents are willing to risk sending their children alone to the United States.

Given the major role our country played in creating this situation, we can’t tell those mothers and fathers their kids aren’t our problem. Most of us in this nation of 318 million people are the descendants of immigrants. We have room for child refugees who fear for their lives.

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