The dramatic surge in the number of Central American children and teenagers entering the US has created considerable concern among many in the United States. Already this year, 52,000 children have been apprehended. The latest estimates indicate that almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors — overwhelmingly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — will be picked-up by the US Border Patrol through this fiscal year ending in September 2014, almost double last year’s total.
For many of us who have conducted research in Central America, this surge is hardly surprising. What is troubling, however, is that the debate over what the US should do with these children has centered on how to deport them as rapidly as possible. The naive notion is that deportation will send an unmistakable message not to attempt the dangerous journey north.
The first question we ought to be asking is: how do we aid these traumatized, troubled young people? Much of the intense, politicized outcry over these developments ignores the fact that, at its core, our immediate treatment of these migrants is a serious human rights question and a critical humanitarian issue. The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 60 percent of the children who have fled to the US qualify for international support, including asylum, and this estimate could prove low.
As Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin put it, “let’s take care that we don’t send them back into a deadly situation.” Our decent treatment of these children reflects our core values as a nation and is simply the right thing to do.
The second question we should ask is: why are these children fleeing now? These kids are crossing the border to escape escalating, uncontrollable violence; grinding poverty; and a devastating, perhaps lethal future. In this maelstrom the United States is not a detached, innocent bystander. For decades, U.S. governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism—often defined as virtually any reformer—gave these regimes a blank check. The result is a legacy of dealing with your opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional.
After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 percent for Guatemala, 36 percent for El Salvador, and 60 percent for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix.
In 2008, I was commissioned by the UNHCR to write a report on violence in Central America. The report concluded that “the new gang-related violence can be attributed to several factors including decades of internal wars and impunity, extensive displacement to urban areas, the absence of social and economic programs to integrate the youth, the migration to the United States, and the overall social exclusion of a large proportion of the population.” We should not make children pay the price for the intolerable social destruction that Central American elites and militaries, as well as successive US governments, had a hand in creating.
Critics charge that President Obama’s immigration policy is at fault today for providing an illusion that if children arrive here they will be allowed to stay. False rumors no doubt contribute to the flow but not significantly. These rumors serve multiple useful purposes, especially to those wanting to maintain the status quo. In a recent UNHCR survey of 400 child migrants only a single child mentioned new US immigration policies as the reason he came.
A number of Republican Senators would like to repeal or at least drastically alter a President George W. Bush-era law that mandated stronger legal rights for child migrants from countries that don’t share a physical border with the United States. Instead, critics propose treating children fleeing the three Central American countries the way children coming from Mexico or Canada are treated: that is, making it far easier to deport them.
What’s wrong with this idea? As a start, Honduras is very different from Mexico let alone Canada. We should remember that in the 1960s, when there was concern over persecution in Cuba, the US encouraged and organized the Peter Pan program that brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. In 1980, over 125,000 Cubans fled that country for the US in a matter of months. Hundreds of small boats from Florida went to the Cuban port of Mariel to pick up those wishing to flee. The US Coast Guard helped insure a safe journey.
What happened to the Peter Pan and Mariel immigrants? They were integrated into existing communities and reunited with family members, the goal of all immigrants. Central Americans are not only contributing to the US economy today but sent $13 billion in remittances to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2013.
The most critical question is: what should the US do now? There are clearly no easy or quick answers, but we need a far more realistic focus. Increasing the border patrol is not going to solve the problem; spending billions on drug interdiction in Central America will not solve the problem. As a start, we need to do two things: first, insure that the rights of the children fleeing to this country are fully respected and that they are treated humanely. This approach would be in the finest traditions of the US and live up to the values we prize.
Second, a long-term Central American-style Marshall Plan is essential to address the structural, economic, and social problems these countries face. And, even then, we must realize that it will take decades to insure strong, sustainable development. Only when young people see a future for themselves in their home countries will the migrations be held in check. Ironically, while this program would involve considerable resources, it could prove by far the most cost-effective approach.
And, in the meantime, we would honor the inspiring words that grace the Statue of Liberty.
Beatriz Manz is a professor in the Department of Geography and Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. Her analysis first appeared as a blog.