Dupere, Katie. 2014. Is the U.S. Properly Handling the Child Immigration Crisis? DebateOut 18 November 2014 http://www.debateout.com/elizabeth-kennedy-fulbright-fellow/.
What do you think about the surge of Central American children coming into the U.S.?
“According to a study done in July, over 70 percent of the US population believes that arriving unaccompanied Central American children are refugees. That is good news, because refugees are people who flee for their lives and cannot be protected by their nations. Therefore, the international community steps in to provide protection.
“At the same time, a number of activists, churches, medical practitioners, non-profit organizations, lawyers and others have organized in the communities along the border where Central American refugees first arrive, and in their destinations within the United States, to make sure they have basic services and care. This is commendable. A number of individuals and organizations are volunteering their time and resources to document abuses and provide legal and medical counsel as well.
“I think this is the true spirit of our nation, and I hope those who are not yet involved in treating the refugees arriving as our fellow brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and friends will soon feel the empathy and compassion to do so.”
What do you see happening from a political standpoint?
“A handful [of politicians] have publicly acknowledged that many children are fleeing violence and abuse, and they have helped advocate for children to have legal representation. Many other politicians have ignored studies and have bought into rumors that promises of immigration reform have driven children North, rather than a fear for their lives, a lack of opportunities or a strong desire to be with family after years apart. Because they do not understand the real reasons children are fleeing, they have proposed changes to laws that currently protect children.
“At the same time, more broadly, politicians have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and even the package that passed the Senate was far too focused on border security. [It] did not offer visas for transnational families or those afraid for their lives, and it did not propose a path to citizenship for the majority of our nation’s undocumented population.”
What do you say to those who disagree with your opinion?
“I hear three main arguments for why children are
coming that are not supported by my 600 interviews
with child migrants on their way to the United States.”
“One: rumors of immigration reform are driving migration. Two: the region has always been violent, so this cannot account for why kids leave today. Three: children and adults do not know the risk they run on the journey.
“[On the first point,] the US normally does not pay any attention to Central America, and from June to present, the US has addressed the region frequently and sent several high-level officials. Many took this to meant that the U.S. would like to help and realizes the seriousness of their need to leave. In these countries, there is always the stated and the unstated. Many believed that while the US was stating there was no ‘permisos,’ they actually wanted to send the opposite message that there were but without having to receive too many. This seems rather absurd, but it makes sense in regional context where laws are often passed but then never enacted.
“It is true that the region has long been violent, but the violence has increased, and it disproportionately impacts young people. A UNICEF report was recently released that named El Salvador as the most deadly country in the world for young people aged 0 to 19. Guatemala is second most dangerous, and Honduras is 11 most dangerous.
“Children and adults are very aware of the risks they run migrating. A study released in December 2013 reported that 57 percent of migrants willingly forego their human rights when migrating and are willing to endure rape, kidnapping, maiming and even death at the chance of reaching the United States. This speaks to their desperation. Adolescents I’ve interviewed perform very logical risk analyses in which they determine that the risks of going are less than the risks of staying.”
What do you believe is causing the surge? Do you have any insight on conditions from being in El Salvador?
“Among adolescents, many recount that they never
wanted to migrate to the U.S., but then [a threat]
occurred and they no longer felt safe.”
“While children from El Salvador — and Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — often migrate for a number of interrelated reasons, including family reunification, extreme poverty, work, domestic abuse, and desire to pursue advanced studies, a large number are afraid for their lives. In my study, 188 of 322 have listed this reason.
“Among adolescents, many recount that they never wanted to migrate to the U.S., but then an assault, a threat, an extortion demand or a series of murders in their neighborhoods occurred and they no longer felt safe.
“The reasons that children are leaving El Salvador (and Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico) right now are complex and related to structural issues, including endemic violence, poverty, transnational families, and lack of economic and social opportunities. Many of these structural issues are deeply influenced by United States domestic and foreign policies, primarily the preference for free trade agreements that have resulted in growing inequality, a militaristic war on drugs that has only increased human rights abuses among military and police forces, the deportation of gang members trained in the United States, and a lack of legal options for families to live with each other.”
Where do you think current policy needs to go to adequately handle this influx?
“Unless root causes are addressed, the outflow will not stop.”
“I think the only way to address root causes, including insecurity, is through economic and social development, a rehabilitative criminal justice system, and the expansion of visa types and quotas for children and adults participating in transnational families. These efforts could help repair the social contract. At the same time, I think the US needs to stop deporting gang members until nations no longer have the world’s highest homicide rates.
“In the US, we are able to absorb those arriving. They are driven and talented and should be valued for their contributions.”
Nussbaum, Rachel. 2014. Armed Guards at Every Home: The View from El Salvador. ACLU Blog of Rights 21 August 2014 https://www.aclu.org/blog/human-rights-immigrants-rights/armed-guards-every-home-view-el-salvador
The story always starts the same way: unaccompanied kids, and sometimes whole families, fleeing terrible violence in Central America.
It must be terrible indeed, because the journey north is a perilous one. Yet parents and kids continue to make that dangerous trip. So these stories leave me wondering, what drives them to do it? What could possibly inspire that much fear and desperation?
Despite the considerable news coverage of the humanitarian crisis playing out along the U.S.-Mexico border, we are still missing this key piece of the puzzle.
This type of violence is not new in El Salvador. The parents and grandparents of the children fleeing El Salvador today experienced a civil war that began in the late 1970s and raged for almost a decade. The United States supported the military regime throughout that conflict, despite their use of terror through death squads, recruitment of child soldiers, thousands of assassinations, and rampant human rights violations.
I asked Elizabeth Kennedy, who has been in El Salvador since November 2013, what day-to-day life is like there now. Elizabeth is a Fulbright fellow working with returned child and youth migrants from Mexico and the United States in El Salvador.
The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for length.
Is it as violent as people say in Central America?
Yes. On average, 12 to 13 people a day are dying in this small nation of 6.2 million people. Only Honduras and Syria have definitively higher homicide rates.
A lot of this violence is directed at young people or their family members. Pockets with little violence exist – for example, in the wealthiest neighborhoods – but in most places, people are off the streets from sun down to sun up. News reports commonly indicate that the community heard the shots at 2:00 or 3:00 AM, but no one went out to see what happened until sunrise.
When I walk down the street in a nice neighborhood, I pass an armed guard at nearly every home, and these homes often have electrified fences. In other neighborhoods, military or police patrol on foot in groups with several guns. In the worst neighborhoods, no police or military are present, but gang members can walk in the street, sometimes with their weapons showing.
What is life like for children in El Salvador?
First and foremost, extreme violence is a regular part of many children’s lives from an early age. They lose friends and family members. They hear gunshots. They see beatings, rapes, and murders. Fourteen of the 322 children I interviewed between January and May had at least one parent who had been murdered. Plus, they are forcibly recruited into gangs, or they are targeted by police and military for being young.
Then, there are the disappearances. 142 children have been reported as disappeared in the past year, though the true total may be higher. Only 13 of these children were eventually located and returned to their parents or guardians. Some were kidnapped from their school, home, shopping center, or even church. Additionally, between 2005 and 2011, 5,300 children were murdered in El Salvador.
Finally, schools are often not safe places. 130 of 322 children I interviewed between January and May attend a school with a gang presence nearby, and 100 attend a school with a gang presence inside. Seventy have quit studying because of the fear they have to be at their schools. The long-term consequences of not completing one’s formal schooling are many for the children and the nation.
Is there a particular child or experience that stands out to you?
I really admire this youth who spoke out – at great personal risk – about what happened to him and his family, because he believes transparency is necessary for justice. He lived in the United States for over seven years, when his mom received a removal order. They elected to voluntarily depart, and within months of their return, they were extorted. They attempted to flee to the United States but were detained and deported from Mexico. His dad was murdered within days, and the youth is now working to support his family. I have met a handful of others in his position.
There’s also the 12-year-old boy who came to us with no shoes. He had been beaten and robbed at a detention center in Tapachula. The aunt with whom he traveled left him to sit alone. I sat next to him and talked with him, and we eventually discussed whether he would try to migrate again. He told me: “Both my parents are in the U.S. I have a sibling I have never met. No one loves me here. What would you do?”
Why don’t people just go to another part of their country? Aren’t there any places where people can feel safe?
El Salvador is a small country, and arguably, there is no safe part of the country unless you have a large amount of economic resources, which most Salvadorans do not.
In my interviews with over 100 Salvadorans who were trying to flee the country after being victims of crime, less than 15 reported the crime. Instead, they fled the neighborhood, often more than once, and then decided to flee the country after criminal elements still found them. Remarkably, two of these victims were police and still had no confidence in the police’s ability to protect them. They both told me: “If they [the gang] want you, you can stay and die. Or you can flee. Nothing else will do.”
Importantly, gangs in El Salvador are transnational criminal organizations capable of acting throughout the country and region. They are internationally networked and have operating revenues of millions of dollars and large weapons stockpiles. In this regard, their security apparatus is arguably stronger than the nation’s military and police.
Do you think people in the United States would feel the same way they do now about those fleeing Central America if they could see what you see?
I think if U.S. citizens came here and had to live in the neighborhoods where many of these kids and adults live, they would feel very differently. They would understand the fear and desperation, and they would likely respond with much more empathy and compassion. People in the United States need to ask themselves: What would I do if someone put a gun to my head and said I could leave or die? What would I do if someone did that to my child? What would I do if I thought that threat could happen any day?
These are the impossible choices many Central Americans face.
Kennedy, Elizabeth. 2014. PRI The World Facebook Q&A on Child Migrants. 6 August 2014. https://www.facebook.com/pritheworld/posts/10152399559269888.
Olga Poliakova What can regular people do to help those kids?