Behind the surge of unaccompanied child migrants to the US

Politicians fighting over immigration still don't understand how violence continues to drive people out of Central America. 

Carlos A. Rosales
4 November 2014
migrant grave texas.jpg

Once reaching the US, some immigrants don't make it very far. A lonely grave lies one mile north of the Rio Grande River in west Texas.Flickr/Martin Prochnik. Some rights reserved. 

No one knows for sure what really happened to little Gilberto. Since his body was found in southern Texas in late June, US authorities have tried to piece together a hypothesis to try to explain the boy´s tragic death. The most likely scenario is that 11 year-old Gilberto Ramos died from a heat stroke after wandering aimlessly in the Texan brush, near the Mexican border. 

The autopsy of his decomposed body showed no signs of trauma. A pathologist estimated that the boy had died nearly two weeks before his body was discovered. Authorities found a telephone number scribbled on the inside of Gilberto´s belt buckle. The number turned out to belong to his brother who lives in Chicago. 

The boy's brother gave US officials his father's telephone number in Guatemala. With the help of that country's government, the father was able to identify Gilberto’s body, his clothing and the rosary he wore for protection around his neck. The little boy had made the long and treacherous ground journey to the US from his family home in Huehuetenango, in eastern Guatemala. The last time his family had spoken to him was about 25 days before his body was found, when he was in Reynosa, Mexico, waiting to cross the border. 

Sadly, the life of an immigrant ending tragically is not uncommon. Data from the US Border Patrol show that 445 immigrants died along the 2,000 mile US-Mexican border in 2013. In Arizona alone, authorities recorded 168 deaths. Experts who exhume immigrant bodies along the border to try to identify them, unearthed two graves at a cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas, in early June. Another excavation last year found the bodies of an infant, a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a pre-teenager.

The surge of unaccompanied children 

Yet, these figures represent only a fraction of the total number of young Central Americans crossing the border illegally recently. Officials estimate more than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been detained after entering the US so far this year, a one hundred percent increase from 2013. This led US President Barack Obama, among others, to label this flow of under-aged immigrants a “humanitarian crisis.” Most of them have arrived from Central America's northern triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), and the vast majority has crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. 

It has also overwhelmed US border authorities. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed by President George W. Bush shortly before leaving office in 2008, is at the root of the problem. This bill gives substantial protections to children entering the country alone by prohibiting them from being quickly sent back to their countries of origin. 

This piece of legislation grants the arriving children the opportunity to appear before an immigration court and to consult with an attorney. This law also requires that under-aged migrants be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of their arrest. It also calls for authorities to explore the possibilities for reuniting them with family members already in the US.

Correctly, the Obama administration has argued that this law is partly responsible for tying the president's hands in dealing with the sudden influx of children. While the White House looks for ways to resolve the current situation, the huge numbers of under-aged migrants has swamped border authorities leading to dreadfully overcrowded conditions in the detention centers.

While administration officials have kept mostly mute on its plans to resolve the crisis, press reports suggest that the White House is considering an experimental plan to allow people to apply for asylum in the US from their homes in Central America. Obama has stated publicly that while refugee status is granted under US law on “limited grounds,” he said there may be, “some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for.”

Why are they leaving? 

Central American illegal migration to the US has been going on for decades. But the sudden rush of unaccompanied children making their way to the US-Mexican border since last October has generated considerable media attention, motivating several research undertakings in an attempt to try to understand and explain the underlying factors behind this phenomenon. 

Officials in Washington blame this surge of immigrants on instability in Central America. The emerging body of empirical evidence seems to support that view. Recent research shows conclusively that violence and exclusion are the main drivers of illegal migration to the United States.

A recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that interviewed around 300 Central American under-aged detainees in the US, cited gang violence and domestic abuse high among the causes for leaving. These testimonies also point to the desire to be reunited with relatives in the US. 

To be sure, the homicide rates in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are among highest in the world. A recent study by Vanderbilt University, based on data from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, shows that “crime and insecurity lead individuals to consider emigration.” The study concludes that “the crime wave currently affecting much of Central America seems to be contributing to a larger pool of people looking to exit the country.” 

Moreover, a recent report by the Washington, DC-based Inter-American Dialogue asserts that “migrants are coming from some of the most populous and violent municipalities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.” Therefore, the study concludes that violence emerges as “a more powerful driver of international migration than human development.”   

In addition, anecdotal evidence from the region offers a complementary explanation. Several testimonies from sending communities in Guatemala and Honduras suggest that the reason why so many people decided to leave—or send their children—so suddenly since last fall is the widespread rumor that the Obama administration had relaxed the rules regarding children migrants entering the United States.  

Several press reports citing testimonies of dozens of women and children arrested at the US-Mexico border reveal that they decided to make the risky land journey from their home countries all the way to the US because they expected to be granted permission to stay. Interviewees kept referring to a permiso—or permit—to stay in the in the United States.

However, no such permit exists. Local researchers from the region say the rumors were spread unscrupulously by human traffickers—or coyotes, as they are known here—in an effort to drum up their thriving business. Smugglers charge between five and ten thousand dollars for getting people across the US border. These numbers make the human export industry worth billions of dollars annually.

Central American officials agree. Guatemala's foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, told the New York Times recently that the crisis was “prompted by the growing business of the coyotes.” He added that the human traffickers “saw a business opportunity, and they convinced people in Central America that somehow the laws of the United States were going to allow them to stay.”   

The US government has since undertaken efforts to quell the rumor mill. A range of high-level government officials have stated unequivocally that no such permits exists and that “illegal immigrants will face deportation.” During a trip to Guatemala in June, US Vice President Joe Biden bluntly stated that there is no “open-arms” immigration policy by the Obama administration, and that the US would “send the vast majority of you back.”

In addition, during a July meeting with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala at the White House, President Obama stated that the four governments “are cooperating to disrupt smuggling organizations.” In late August, the Department of Homeland Security announced that less than a month into the 90-day “Operation Coyote” targeting many of the human smugglers behind the child exodus arriving in the Rio Grande Valley, 192 smugglers had been arrested and 288 bank accounts had been seized.   

US-Central America relations

The wave of unaccompanied children has once again put US-Central American relations in the headlines, much more so than at any other time since the Cold War. Critics of US foreign policy contend that much of the debate in the United States largely overlooks how Central America—particularly, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—became the theaters for such levels of violence, corruption, insecurity and poverty, thus ignoring the considerable role the US played in those nations. 

Indeed, the US role in Central America was “often marked by dishonorable intentions,” critics charge. And, these were largely conditioned by “early 20th century American imperialism, the brutality of zero-sum Cold War realpolitik, and the insanity of a 'drug war' policy that, to this day, incorporates a significant US military presence.”  

El Salvador's 12-year civil war in the 1980s, like other Central American conflicts at the time, were proxy wars between US-backed right-wing forces and Soviet-backed guerrilla movements. Over a half-million impoverished and war-shocked Salvadorans fled to the United States. Once in Los Angeles, and later in other cities, Salvadorans formed street gangs as a way to protect themselves from more established gangs. When many of them were deported to their home country in the 1990s, they imported the US gang culture and levels of violence not seen previously in El Salvador, or in the rest of Central America. 

Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which intensified in the 1980s with the indiscriminate massacre of Mayan communities, began with the US-backed overthrow of a democratically elected reformist in 1954. That chapter of the country's history undermined Guatemalan democracy and stability so profoundly that it took the country four decades to emerge from the throes of war. Although Guatemala's current president Otto Pérez Molina is a former US-trained army general, he has openly argued in favor of drug legalization and a fresh approach to regional drug policy.

Honduras did not fare much better. In the early 20th century, US corporations and the US government co-opted successive governments to secure economic and labor concessions and the development of infrastructure for banana plantations on the Honduran coast. This process culminated in the 16-year rule of a US-backed dictator in the 1930s and 1940s. Although Honduras has held regular elections for the last 33 years, during the 1980s many dissidents were victimized by paramilitary death squads. To this day, similar right-wing forces continue to harass and murder journalists, labor activists and critics. In 2009, a military coup ousted a leftist president who attempted to relax the existing prohibition on reelection.

At present, even as several US states begin to experiment with new approaches to drug laws, including legalizing marijuana and emphasizing treatment (public health) over incarceration (public security), US drug policy south of the border remains locked in a 1980s military-style mindset. This has led to officials locking horns with many Latin American counterparts on how to deal with the “drug problem.”    

Shared responsibilities

With mid-term elections in the US, the political debate around immigration policy has intensified significantly, with Republican legislators taking hardline positions, like calling for the National Guard to be sent to the border. While the White House has offered Central America countries increasing development assistance, it has also stepped up pressure on the region’s governments to give migrant families a reason to stay put. 

In doing so, Washington has also raised some hard questions regarding the seriousness with which Central American countries are dealing with the underlying causes of migration. As expected, the governments of those countries have reacted by blaming the US war on drugs for fueling the immigration crisis.

The president of Honduras has floated the idea that the US should give the isthmus a Central American version of Plan Colombia—a ten-year, $8 billion operation aimed at combating Colombian drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups. However, it is hard to envision those amounts of resources ever materializing given the Obama administration´s inability to secure the levels of emergency funding it had requested from Congress to deal with this crisis. 

There are also concerns that the enormous capital flows that such an ambitious plan would imply presumes a level of institutional capacities and a culture of transparency that the region’s public sectors lack. Guatemala and Honduras rank among the most corrupt countries in the planet (El Salvador only slightly less). Both countries rank high in the 2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index—123 and 140 respectively (El Salvador ranks 83). Moreover, the prevailing criminal environment in the three countries is also worsened by their elites’ fondness for using the market, democratic institutions and the justice system only when it works to their advantage. 

While US foreign policy during the Cold War and the drug-war policy in the post-Cold War era may explain many of the problems in three nations, the blame for all of the sociopolitical ills of Central America—including extreme violence and the lack of opportunities—cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of the United States. Local elites—that have systematically impoverished their populations, while enriching a few—also share some of the blame. 

Local opinion leaders concur. According to several keen observers of Central American political affairs, including leading intellectuals, the existing mix of rising violence, underemployment and exclusionary policies has to do with inept and corrupt governments as much as with the way economic elites have run these countries for so many years.

There’s clearly no easy solution to the current crisis. US policymakers should have devoted more attention and financial resources to social development in the last two decades, instead of deploying military and security assistance that only worsened corrupt practices among the region´s security forces while rendering them ineffective in combating violent gangs and drug trafficking organizations. 

And while the Obama administration is working to bring a short-term end to the inflow of child migrants, it also has an historic opportunity to re-launch US-Central American relations on a path towards more productive US policy decisions. Washington should aim to steer away from continuing to view the isthmus as a drug-war battleground or as the source of unwanted migrants.

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