Frequently Asked Questions on the Exodus of Children from Central America. We have prepared this list of questions and answers as a tool to help our members and allies talk about children who have arrived in the U.S. from Central America will the media and the public.
NALACC Q & A: Central American Unaccompanied Children
Why are all the kids seeming to come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala? Most of the children interviewed by researchers from the United Nations, and academics report that the levels of violence and insecurity in their communities make them fearful for their survival and safety. The increasing violence and insecurity that these Central American children are fleeing has its roots in a structural pattern of increasing economic inequality, especially in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A recent research report on Salvadoran migrant children found that 60% list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration.
Why are these children coming to the US? Why are they not going to other countries? The shortest answer to the first question is family ties. The vast majority of the children that have been apprehended by the US Border Patrol in recent months are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. These are countries with strong ties to the US. Over the past 30 years, nearly 4 million people from these countries have settled in the US. The one country where these kids have a strong family connection is precisely the US. This makes sense—children are seeking a place of safety with family they know and trust. In spite of this reality, children are also going to other countries, but not in the numbers seeking to reach the US. Again, the key factor is family ties.
What about Mexico? Mexican children are a hidden aspect of this crisis. Mexican children are also apprehended at the border in large numbers. But those minors who are picked up by the Border Patrol as they attempt to enter the United States, are immediately deported, with virtually no recourse to legal representation. This practice, euphemistically called “repatriation” obscures the fact that many Mexican children are also fleeing conditions of insecurity and violence, and also deserve protection.
What about Nicaragua? The structural conditions in Nicaragua with respect to public security and social welfare are markedly different from those of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. As a result, Nicaragua has fewer of the immediate triggers that are fueling the large-scale exodus of children from other countries in the region. The nature of emigration in Nicaragua is also different from other countries in the region. For the past twenty years or so, the majority of people seeking opportunities outside Nicaragua have settled in Costa Rica, or other Central American countries, rather than in the United States. The migration dynamic between Nicaragua and Costa Rica has its own problems and tensions, including concerns about treatment of migrant children.
Why does the US have to do anything? Isn’t this a problem for Central America? The U.S. has had a direct hand in creating violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing so many to flee. The War on Drugs has had considerable negative impacts in the region and even Robert Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, asserted that the increase in migration may be a result of our failed drug policy. U.S. aid to stem drug trafficking often goes to security forces and political leaders with histories of human rights violations and connections to drug traffickers, fostering more violence.The U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 has also led to human rights violations, instability and violence in the country causing displacement and migration of minors to increase 1200% since the coup.
Economic policies also play a role. In the agricultural sector for example, the US subsidized its own agro-industry, but presses aggressively for “open markets” with its trade partner. In practice, this can displace Central American farmers, robbing them of their livelihoods and pushing them into poverty.
If we can’t afford decent schools and safe streets for our own kids, how can we take care of others? It is a dangerous mistake to think that there is “no money” for public goods that we all need such as schools and safe neighborhoods. As two insightful young activists (one African American and one Latina) recently wrote in Root.com “all lives matter.” They go on to say, “young people across this country are suffering because most of our politicians do not act as if any of our lives matter. If they did, education would be a primary investment over the failed foreign and domestic policies that have only contributed to our criminalization.” Politicians, and we as a society, are making choices about how we spend money. When we prioritize billions of dollars for detention and private prisons over education, when we spend more billions to militarize borders, when we spend more on our military budget that the next 25 countries combined; we are making choices, with real consequences. We need to break out of the mentality that helping one child will hurt another. Rather, we should ask, what should we do so that all children have the best chance to grow and prosper?
How is this issue linked to the immigration reform debate? The current crisis of children in detention must be treated first and foremost as a humanitarian issue, with the highest priority on protecting children. The frame of national security, control and punishment that permeates our national debate on immigration is completely inappropriate in this situation. However, it is also true, that the current crisis sheds a harsh light on the failure of the US Congress to fix our outdated and cruel immigration policies that keep families separated, sometimes for decades.
Don’t the governments of the region need to step up? Yes, the countries from which the unaccompanied children are fleeing also bear enormous responsibility and should be held accountable—both for failing to provide a stable and secure environment in which families can thrive, and for failing to provide opportunities that would make emigration a true option, rather than a necessity for people who are seeking a better life for their families.
Countries, such as Mexico, through which children are traveling in transit toward the United States also have an obligation to protect them. Currently, the governments of Central America and Mexico are ill-equipped to respond to a flow of children who have been returned through deportation, or those in transit through their countries. The governments of the region need to respond with protections for children as well.
People are saying we need to deport these children as a deterrent to others. Shouldn’t we be sending a stronger message? Suggesting that we can stem the tide of unaccompanied children by swiftly deporting those who are already here makes no sense. No parent should have to choose between trying to reunite with their child, despite the risk of the migration journey, or leaving their child to face the grave and constant risk of violence or death at home.
The administration is defaulting to the same misguided framework of repression and punishment that has characterized policy toward immigrants and immigration for the past twenty to thirty years. This is especially shameful in light of this Administration’s track record of deporting more than 2 million people in the last few years.
What can we do differently? The structural problems that drive the exodus of children in the first place must be addressed. We need to re-think priorities for building up economic and educational opportunity in Central America, as well as supporting the ability of citizens in that region to hold their governments accountable to democratic principles and practices.
In a recent visit to Honduras, Vice President Biden indicated that the United States would provide support for increased police and military efforts to combat organized crime. Continuing to feed violence with more violence is not the answer. The United States should invest in assisting Central American countries to create the conditions for protection and healthy return of children and families. This is an urgent short-term priority, as countries such as Honduras are already struggling to respond to the re-integration challenges of the many people who have been deported in recent years.
Any response that ignores this longer-term challenge will simply set the stage for the next crisis.
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