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Blog: Crisis of Children on Our Southern Border

Jul 14, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein

The surge of undocumented children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has created a full-blown immigration crisis. More than 52,000 youngsters have poured across these borders since last fall. While the number of children apprehended at the border averaged 6,800 annually between 2004 and 2011, the total jumped to over 13,000 children in 2012 and over 24,000 in 2013. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that well over 60,000 unaccompanied minors could enter the U.S. in 2014, and that is a conservative estimate.

In the short term, it doesn't really matter why they have fled their native land. These kids are here and must be cared for humanely, treated with dignity and allowed the benefits of justice – and most importantly, protected from any further harm. This is a humanitarian crisis.

In the meantime, we can try to determine whether they have been driven to undertake this harrowing journey by lawlessness, drug violence and sex trafficking in their home state or whether they have been encouraged to risk the trip by rumors of U.S. acceptance or by the prospect of overburdened immigration courts which may allow them to be admitted into this country while they await a hearing, which may take months or even years.

Groups as diverse as the United Nations and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), whose delegations have traveled to the lands in question and interviewed these kids, have pointed out that no one explanatory variable accounts for the total reasons given by the children for leaving their homeland. But in addition to the absence of economic opportunity, entrenched poverty, lack of quality education (even access to education generally) and the desire to reconnect with family members living in the U.S., one overriding factor played a decisive role in the past few years: generalized violence (coercion, extortion, gang activity, kidnapping, threats, forcible recruitment into criminal activity, smuggling and trafficking in humans, drugs and weapons) at both the state and local levels has threatened security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness.

Mauricio from Honduras, age 17, gives us a first-hand account from someone who has left his country to seek greater economic opportunity: "If they really do want to know how hard life is down there, they should go see it. There are kids who don't make it past five [years old] because they die of hunger. Their parents can't work because there are no jobs. Just give us a chance. Let us better ourselves so we can be something better than what we are today."

If one were to probe a little deeper into Mauricio's story, we might find, as a delegation from the United Nation's High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) did (in a story related below), that Mauricio also has other reasons for making the dangerous trek to the U.S. and it may have to do with the culture of violence and crime in his country. In all these Central American countries there has been a breakdown of the family unit where one or both parents have left for the U.S., leaving children behind with relatives, often grandparents. Criminal elements prey on what remains of the family, especially as they receive remittances from the U.S. and are deemed rich. Young persons who resist joining gangs are intimidated and threatened with violence or even death.

The "Human Rights Watch" report for 2014 criticizes the three Central American countries -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- for rampant crime and impunity for human rights abuses; for failing to bring the perpetrators of killings to justice; for police corruption and abuses, among many other human rights problems. In these countries police have long been accused of operating more like assassins than law enforcement officers. This report largely substantiates the stories told by the children.

While the diminished coffee industry in Guatemala, political instability and a breakdown of the rule of law in Honduras, and the lack of remittances to families in El Salvador from Salvadorans in the U.S. due to the global recession all played their part, overwhelming violence in these societies seemed to exert the most control over decisions by the children themselves or those who had authority over them to leave the country despite all the poor odds that escape would be successful.

Central American countries in the past few years have witnessed an intensification of gang activity as gangs and their loosely-affiliated imitators have become more sophisticated in terms of their operations and execution. They have established an increasingly strong criminal presence threatening children if they refuse to become members and demanding payment of money from families and businesses to ensure that these groups are "protected" from violence.

One girl from Honduras said she was scared to take public transportation because Honduran gangs were burning buses full of people if the driver wouldn't pay "protection money." She said gangs regularly burn down jails and houses. Another girl had to flee because of the rampant killings. She described how she went out of her house one morning and found a chopped-up body lying on her doorstep. According to another young girl, girls as young as 9 were being gang-raped by various gang members. If she gave birth she would then be left to care for the child, until that child was old enough to join the gang. A boys' focus group declared that they see death every day either by the government or by criminal gangs.

Fernando, age 17, a former client of Catholic Relief Services' Youth Builders program in El Salvador, said he was aware of gang life before he even went to high school. He described the gangs' ubiquitous presence in the community, especially on school property -- selling drugs, throwing rocks at school buses, beating kids on the school bus with belts as part of the gang initiation, beating kids with a knife and removing the insignia from their school uniforms. The girls fared worse -- drugged at high school parties, then gang-raped. He depicted a school atmosphere in which the teachers and administrators were completely unable to protect the students, at least 50% of whom were armed. He was beaten nearly every day on the school bus -- maybe because he did well in school, and finally, he became marginally involved in gang activity. Although he maintains he "never became a rank and file gang member," nevertheless he helped gang members patrol the school buses and drank with them. Ultimately, he was motivated to leave gang life when he had a child, saying, "I don't want my child to grow up like that." Fernando then turned to Catholic Relief Services for help.

A young woman, Josephina, age 16, from El Salvador, gives another perspective on intimidation and threats of a gang. Josephina initially told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that her main reason for coming to the U.S. was to join her stepfather with whom she had a warm relationship. However, during the course of her interview, she began to talk about the threats she received from the head of the gang that controlled her neighborhood if she did not become his girlfriend. Josephina knew another girl in her community who had become the girlfriend of a gang member and had been forced to have sex with all the gang members. Since she didn't want any part of that kind of activity, Josephina no longer felt safe. She stopped going to school and that is when her family made arrangements for her to travel to the U.S.

A variation of Josephina's story is that of Maritza, age 15, also from El Salvador. She told the UNHCR: "I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn't safe for me to stay there. They told him on April 3, and I left on April 7... I also wanted to come because I was excited to see my mother. But I was also sad about leaving my grandmother... I wasn't sure I wanted to come. I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me."

Luis and Mario, both 17, from Guatemala are two of the lucky migrants who are now day laborers working in Berkeley, California. "My parents didn't want me to go, especially my mom," says Luis. "She knows how dangerous the trek is." But he didn't want to be forced into a gang like so many of his friends. Mario agrees. "The gangs rob, kidnap and kill," he says. "If you refuse to join, it could mean death. The only way out is to leave." Both boys were locked up in a hotel room for 10 days by smugglers whom they met near the U.S. border. Their relatives were forced to pay more than a thousand dollars in ransom for their freedom. But they were not released before being beaten.

Anthony, age 13, disappeared from his gang-ridden neighborhood in one of Honduras's dangerous cities, so his younger brother Kenneth, age 7, hopped on his bike to search for him, starting his hunt at a notorious gang hang-out. They were both found within days of each other, both dead; Anthony and a friend had been shot in the head; Kenneth had been tortured and beaten with sticks and rocks. They were among seven children murdered in the city in April 2014 alone, part of a surge in gang violence that is strangling the countries of Central America.

The UNHCR found that 72% of Salvadoran children were forcibly displaced because of severe harm that required a closer review for international protection needs, representing the largest group of the Central American countries. 57% of Honduran children and 38% of Guatemalan children raised potential international protection concerns, both for violence in society. In Honduras, two additional children spoke about the rampant violence in that country. According to one 16-year-old boy: "You feel afraid where you live in a place where there is nothing but violence. It's very dangerous there. The gangs are everywhere. You become accustomed to hearing gunshots. You wonder if something will happen to you if you go out to the store, whether someone will shoot you or tell you that you have to join the gangs." A girl who was only 12 years old spoke of gang members targeting girls her age in her community: "In the village where I lived there were a ton of gang members. All they did was bad things, kidnapping people. My mother and grandmother were afraid that something would happen to me. That's why my mother sent me here. They rape girls and get them pregnant. The gang got five girls pregnant, and there were other girls who disappeared and their families never heard from them again."

The UNHCR found that 58% of the children they interviewed in 2013 expressed fear of serious harm due to threats from gangs that raised international protection concerns, even when they gave other reasons for migrating to the U.S. In contrast, the UNHCR 2006 study of migrant children from the same areas found that only 13% of the children interviewed described these harmful situations.

In the same UNHCR study, almost 70% of children talked about at least one specific incident, such as having been beaten, robbed or threatened by gangs. More than half of the children who discussed gang violence issues, talked about the rampant threat of harm by armed criminal groups in their communities, including inter-gang conflict and the extent of the control gangs exercise in different neighborhoods. Let's listen to Alphonso, age 17, from El Salvador: "The problem was that where I studied there were lots of M-18 gang members, and where I lived was under the control of the other gang, the MS-13. The M-18 thought I belonged to the MS-13. They had killed the two police officers who protected our school. They waited for me outside the school... The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn't make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one... I know someone whom the gangs threatened this way. He didn't take their treats seriously. They killed him in the park... If I hadn't had these problems, I wouldn't have come here."

Lest the reader think that the only form of violence from which children in Central America were fleeing was criminal gang violence, it should be noted that some children were fleeing violent abuse in the home from an immediate family member or relative. However, these cases were a very small percentage of the total. It should also be noted that in even a smaller percentage of cases (less than 3%) did any children mention a U.S. policy of leniency toward children.

Youngsters who manage to flee the violence of their homeland are then exposed to extreme danger and criminal mistreatment along the migration journey by drug traffickers, human traffickers, even weak law enforcement personnel. Children are raped, beaten and frequently abandoned along the way. Dani, age 16 when she started her journey northward, learned quickly how human trafficking often operates. She reported that she left her two little children with her mother. She had been promised a job in the U.S. at a cantina by one of her cousins and she would live with her as well. While she anticipated a straightforward waitressing job, she discovered that she was also expected to please the male clientele with sexual activity. Fortunately, Dani was able to apply for a humanitarian visa and return to her country.

Before we examine the several legislative proposals currently being prepared in Congress, some partisan, others bipartisan, as well as the recent funding request of the president, we need to hear the unfiltered voices of the youngsters at the border before we, in our wisdom, decide what is best for their welfare and that of our country.

The reasons these children have given for leaving their countries are complex and interrelated and can be understood only when examined from a child-sensitive perspective. It is important also to note that there is no one dominant place of origin within any of these countries from which the youngsters come. The problems described in the various narratives are pervasive throughout each country. What all these compelling stories (and so many more not conveyed) demonstrate unequivocally is that the majority of these displaced kids faced grave dangers and hardship in their countries of origin. Fleeing violence and insecurity, they arrive here only to be confronted with a broken immigration system that exhibits little concern for their wellbeing