Amid the noisy cries of “deport them!” and the compassion of those concerned with their care in exigent circumstances, few seem to understand why up to 90,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are expected to seek refuge in the United States this year. Almost no one, not President Obama, not most media and especially not politicians, is talking about the U.S.’s role in producing this crisis.
What would cause you to send your child on a 1,000-mile journey that risks their assault, robbery, rape, kidnapping or death? Experts tell us that 75 percent of the children come from three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and their numbers have already grown more than fivefold since 2011.
Much of this desperate flow can be traced back to U.S. policy and actions in Central America during the last decades. In the 1980s, our government trained and funded Salvadoran and Guatemalan military and police to destroy popular revolutions, beginning a long history of repression and human rights violations, especially of indigenous citizens. In 2009, the U.S. supported the military coup against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras (a coup that was condemned by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States). These countries have been left with brutal, corrupt armies and police forces, increasingly unequal societies and growing state and gang violence. “Security” aid to fight the “drug wars” has exacerbated violence in the countries from which the children are fleeing.
In a 2014 United Nations Report, 72 percent of Salvadoran migrant children said that evading gang extortion, witnessing murders and dealing with threats to themselves and their families, friends and neighbors drove them from El Salvador. Gangs that the U.S. exported through deportation from California cities are part of their everyday experiences. El Salvador’s murder rate has increased by nearly 50 percent in the first months of this year.
Since the Washington-supported coup in 2009, violence has made Honduras the “murder capital of the world” and out migration has surged 500 percent.
A recent U.S. Customs and Border Protection map shows that Guatemala’s violence is also widespread. A 2013 United Nations report found that more than half of Guatemalan children cited poverty, deprivation, and abuse as their major reasons for leaving, but nearly one-third also attributed their flight to violence.
The 2003 Central American Free Trade Agreement struck another blow, imposing so-called “structural adjustment” policies on these countries that cut social programs and essential services. In its wake, extreme poverty has grown, particularly in indigenous rural areas where competition from cheaper U.S. agricultural products has decimated rural livelihoods. Privatization schemes between El Salvador and the U.S., including the not-yet-signed Partnership for Growth, threaten to further exacerbate the existing poverty and displacement.
Tragically, the proposed “solution” to this swelling refugee crisis is the so-called HUMANE Act, which is anything but humane — it would remove the protections for child immigrants provided in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in order to expedite deporting them. And it is ludicrous to think that U.S.-sponsored messages to the people of these countries warning families not to come will stop those fleeing for their lives. We have an overriding moral obligation to care for these children humanely and assure their safety and long-term security in the homes of loving family members here in the United States.
Dr. Grania Marcus is a member of the Rochester Committee on Latin America.