By Dr. Lynn Holland
The news that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have been detained at the border over the last few months has set off a new round of debate over immigration policy. According to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 39,000 adults have crossed with children and another 52,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived since last October, most of them in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The rate is about twice what it was at the same time last year and CBP officials expect it to soar to 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
Over half of these unaccompanied children are now coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. While Mexico is the single largest country of origin, the number of Mexican migrants of all ages is actually tapering off. Furthermore Mexican children are by law, deported immediately, as they reside in a country whose border is contiguous with that of the US. Minors from the Northern Triangle countries on the other hand, must be detained until their status can be determined and can be held for up to 72 hours. Afterward they are placed in temporary shelter while relatives or sponsors in the US are located and hearings are held.
The unexpected surge in migrants from the Northern Triangle has swamped existing detention centers, which are not well equipped for children. To remedy the situation, the government is now rushing to open new facilities for families and unaccompanied minors, and dispatching lawyers, immigration judges and asylum officers to the border to speed up the processing. Even so, critics fear that the government will lose track of these new arrivals as they settle into the existing ranks of undocumented immigrants in the US.
In fact, they have lost no time in placing the blame for the crisis directly on President Obama’s shoulders. Most at fault, they say, is his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 White House memorandum. While it does not provide lawful immigration status, DACA allows a two-year deferral of deportation proceedings for children living in the US who were brought to the country before June 15, 2007. Though none of the current wave of child migrants will qualify for DACA, many see this as the leading cause of the surge in unaccompanied child migrants.
As Representative Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia argued, “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children.” Blaming the president for endangering the children, Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) claimed, “Children are pushed into the hands of criminals because the Obama Administration has made it clear to the world that any child who arrives, regardless of whether they are granted formal legal status, will be permitted to stay in the United States.” The conservative Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has joined in politicizing the issue. As Director Mark Krikorian states, “The word has gotten back that (the administration) is letting people stay …What it means is they haven’t locked down the border, and all this talk about how tough the administration is on enforcement is being exposed as false.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) of California provided support for these accusations after sending staff members to a facility in Nogales, Arizona, to investigate. In a statement to the Washington Post, she pointed out that while the children were being well cared for, many apparently had been promised that they would be able to stay in the US. Her staff also learned that some had been “smuggled across the border after hearing radio ads promising they would not be deported.” In other cases, the children received these messages from religious organizations.
According to border agents, the strategy of crossing the border has recently changed. Instead of running from the authorities, women with children and unaccompanied minors now head straight to them believing that if they are caught they will receive permits allowing them to remain in the US. Some speculate that human smugglers or “coyotes” intending to increase their profits are responsible for spreading these false rumors. Still others suggest that right-wing groups have perpetrated the rumors in their determination to foment a crisis. The Mexican government has also been criticized for evidently cutting back its efforts to intercept migrants while en route to the US through Mexico.
Children at Risk
A recent report by the UN Refugee Agency, Children on the Run, provides a regional perspective on the problem. In the first place, the study shows that the US is not the only destination country for children traveling alone from Central America. While the US receives the majority of asylum applications, the number of requests has spiked in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize. Together these countries have experienced a 712 percent increase in the number of applications received from the Northern Triangle countries in recent years.
The authors of the report conducted interviews with 404 detained children from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. Of these, 58 percent had been “forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” In a similar study in 2006 only 13 percent of this population had made the same claim while the majority stated a desire for work and education opportunities, and family reunification as reasons for migration.
Of those seeking to escape from violence, the largest proportion, 48 percent, had suffered threats or actual violence at the hands of “organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors.” Another 21 percent said that they had suffered abuse in their own homes at the hands of their caretakers. Among those coming from Mexico, 38 percent reported that they were escaping recruitment into the human smuggling industry. Finally, 11 percent said that they were running from violence both in the home and in society.
In comparing these figures to those in the 2006 study, it seems likely that violence is rising in the Northern Triangle with teenagers among the victims. While the vast majority in the sample from Mexico were boys – 96 percent – girls were a significant proportion of those coming from the Northern Triangle countries. Girls constituted 21 percent of those from Guatemala, 30 percent of those from Honduras, and 36 percent of those from El Salvador. Among those who were escaping violence, forced conscription into gangs, threats, extortion, targeted violence and domestic abuse were among the most commonly cited forms. While boys were more likely to experience forced conscription into gangs, girls frequently expressed fears of sexual assault.
In a few cases, the report provides moving and detailed stories from the youths themselves. Seventeen-year-old Kevin from Honduras described his motivation this way:
My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: “If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.”
Fifteen-year-old Maritza told this story about leaving her home in El Salvador:
I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them “liked” me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. They told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7. They said if I was still there on April 8, they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen. . . . My mother’s plan was always for the four of us – her, my two sisters and me – to be together. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to come. I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me.
Are They Refugees?
Given their fears of persecution in their home countries, a large number of youths now arriving may well qualify for refugee status. As the US is a signatory of the 1951 UN refugee treaty, this would mean that they can not be immediately deported. Under the terms of the treaty, anyone who crosses the border and shows evidence of being at risk cannot be repatriated to his or her own country until a thorough investigation has been carried out. As such, the migrant will be allowed a trial and will likely remain in the US until the process is over. Under laws passed in 2002 and 2005, unaccompanied minors must be placed in the least restrictive possible setting while in custody and detained immigrant families are to be kept together in humane settings. As the numbers continue to grow, the Obama Administration will be under competing pressures to comply with these human rights mandates on one hand while preventing these new arrivals from remaining in the US on the other.
Many are quick to blame poverty for the recent surge in immigration from Central America. In fact, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Costa Rica is also quite poor, however, and there is no country in Central America that is poorer than Nicaragua. Yet there has been no mass exodus from these two countries. To the contrary, they are among the receiving countries in the region. While hardly free of violence, both have significantly lower murder rates, gang activity and drug trafficking than their counterparts in the Northern Triangle. Poverty alone then cannot explain this recent surge of migration.
The Drug War and the Rule of Law
Nor can it be explained by rising violence if murder rates are any indication. Murder rates for all three countries have been in the top ten throughout the world for several years. Indeed the murder rate in Honduras rose in 2011 and 2012, but it had been rising steadily since 2004. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the murder rates have actually been falling since 2009.
The functioning of the rule of law in these countries provides a more robust explanation. After the drug war geared up in Mexico in 2008, Mexican drug traffickers turned to the Northern Triangle countries as a transit point for cocaine en route from the Andes. The weak governments, low levels of democratic accountability and corrupted authorities that characterized these countries made them attractive sites for traffickers to operate. Since then Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have all become critical links in the drug smuggling chain.
The rise of drug trafficking soon brought these countries into the heart of the drug war. In fact, the current surge in immigration coincides with a spike in US military aid to Central America under the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) in 2011 and 2012. These three countries have been the top recipients of this aid by far. As in Mexico, they have relied heavily on military forces not only to carry out anti-drug policies but in the cases of Honduras and El Salvador, to take action against gangs as well.
In all three countries, the empowerment of the military has exacerbated existing divisions between rich and poor. Prisons filled up and overflowed with the poor, the unemployed, and members of marginalized groups while drug trafficking or criminal violence remain unaffected. In Honduras, security forces have used their bolstered status to repress social protest while providing protection for large landowners, mining interests and major foreign investors. In El Salvador, the armed forces have been excessive in rounding up young men and throwing them in prison without proof of gang affiliation. At the same time, an intricate system of bribery has further corrupted government officials and distanced authorities from the people they are supposed to protect.
Today as in the past, what happens in Central America has a profound effect on us. Many of the grandparents of those now arriving made the same journey to the US back in the 1980s when wars broke out throughout this region. In the 1990s, many of their children, especially young men, were repatriated to El Salvador and Honduras when it was learned that they belonged to gangs, usually for their own protection. Because these young men had been raised in the US, they often knew little Spanish and even less about the countries they returned to. Being marginalized and unemployed, they frequently turned to gang life for survival and companionship causing a swelling of gang activity in the two countries.
The drug war, its weakening effect on the rule of law and the newest wave of migrants at our door is but the latest phase in a long and troubled relationship with Central America. While nearly $100 million in US aid has recently been allocated to assist the countries of the Northern Triangle in resettling displaced immigrants and countering violence, it will be but a stopgap rather than a lasting solution. Only a long-term commitment to build democracy, protect human rights, and constrain military prerogatives will lead to stabilization in these small countries. Before that can happen we will need to recognize how profoundly we are affected by their fortunes.
Dr. Lynn Holland is Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Trafficking, Organized Crime and Security and is Senior Research Scholar, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). Dr. Holland has been a recipient of the Ruth Murray Underhill Teaching Award (2011).