Today Vice-President Joe Biden will meet the presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador and a senior official from Honduras to hammer out ways to stop a flood of unaccompanied children into the United States. In the year to May 31, 47,017 of them arrived, a 92 percent increase over the previous year. Next year 60,000 are expected.
Border protection officials have nowhere to house most of these youngsters. In one amazing incident, federal immigration agents dropped hundreds of women and children at a bus station in Phoenix, Arizona, and told them to find their relatives.
President Obama has called the surge in illegal child migration an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and has asked Congress to authorise US$1.4 billion for housing and other needs.
Adults can be deported immediately, but unaccompanied children become wards of the state. The Department of Health and Human Services tries to place them with a family member living in the US or with a sponsor family after a few weeks of screening and supervision.
This is clearly a “humanitarian situation”. Away from the care of a mother and father in a stable family, children are at serious risk of abuse. The long journey from Central America through Mexico is terribly dangerous and some children have become victims of violent crime and sexual abuse. Once the children have passed over the border, American bureaucrats will wearily do their best — but ghastly scandals are all but inevitable among nearly 50,000 children.
Whose fault is this?
Republicans are calling this “an Administration-made disaster.” They attribute the flood to an executive order signed by the President in 2012, the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, which gives temporary legal status and work authorisation. Democrats respond that the uptick in child migration began long before 2012. However, the White House has acknowledged that Central America is awash with rumours that children are being allowed to stay in the US.
But Central American parents would not place their children in danger without a reason. Apart from poverty and lack of economic opportunity, they are telling the media two reasons why.
The first is family reunion. Many of these kids have parents or other relatives who are working illegally. If the US had a more rational and humane immigration policy, perhaps many of these hazardous journeys would be unnecessary.
In fact, the foreign minister of Honduras, Fernando Carrera, denies that the US is experiencing a humanitarian disaster. It is not earthquakes or wars which have released this flood, he says. “The truth is that this is a massive movement of family reunion, with their fathers, with their mothers, with their grandparents, or sometimes with other relatives.”
The other reason is fear. These countries have the highest murder rates in the world. The rate of intentional homicides in the US per 100,000 people is 4.8. In El Salvador, it is 41.2; in Guatemala 49.9; and in Honduras 90.4, the highest in the world. If desperate parents think that their kids might not live to celebrate their 21st birthday, they will do desperate things to save them. “In a very real way, the people fleeing Central America are war refugees,” says the Sacramento Bee. “While there’s no formal conflict, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are some of the most violent places on earth.”
Who is causing this chaos? Largely hyperviolent gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18. And where did they come from?
The United States.
In the 1980s, nearly a million people from Central America fled to the US to escape civil wars. Some of their children joined gangs in Los Angeles and other big cities. After the LA riots of 1992, California passed tough anti-gang laws. These were followed by a “three-strikes you’re out” law which sent people to jail for 25-years-to-life for three felonies. Then in 1996 Congress got tough on immigration and decreed that non-citizens sentenced to a year or more in prison would be deported. Even foreign-born Americans could be stripped of their citizenship and deported once they had served their term.
As a result, tens of thousands of hardened gang members have been deported back to Central America. Some of them were native English speakers and had no family connections. To the consternation of local police, US immigration officials were banned from informing the destination country of criminal records back in the US. So the deportees set about doing what they did best: creating mayhem. Crime exploded: drug trafficking, people-smuggling, car theft, extortion, prostitution, theft, contract killings and gang wars. The governments fought back with a “mano dura” (“strong hand”) approach which led to more violence.
In effect, the United States has been exporting some of its most vicious criminals and ignoring the consequences. It’s as if it had been dumping nuclear waste in the Caribbean, hoping that nobody would notice the dead fish and the deformed babies. Now this ill-conceived policy of using immigration law to empty prisons has come back to bite the United States.
“The growing humanitarian crisis at our border is a direct consequence of the Obama Administration’s refusal to secure the border,” says Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican. At best this is only partly true. Securing the border is important because of the chaos to the south. Rather than fulminating against the President, American politicians should help El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to come to grips with the Central American crisis of gang-related violence. After all, it was US policies which helped to create it.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.