Interviews/Entrevistas

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.

You can find out more about Elizabeth’s work in Central America at https://elizabethgkennedy.com/ You can also follow her on twitter as @EGKennedySD.


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?

Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thanks so much for wanting to help! I encourage you to contact your state and national representatives and senators when they return from the recess to express concern that these children deserve our protection. If in conversation with others who do not understand this, share with them the story that has touched you and possibly organize events in your community to share why children leave. This is an important moment for us as citizens in the U.S. in which we must decide if we will be a nation of compassion or a nation of hate, and those of us who feel compassion must help those who do not yet feel it to wake up. For concrete organizations to support and others actions to take, Dara Lind with Vox released this article about how to help:  http://www.vox.com/…/children-border-how-help-donate…, Ian Gordon with Mother Jones released this article: http://www.motherjones.com/…/how-help-unaccompanied…, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha has a great resource page with ways to help here: http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/unaccompaniedlinks.php.
Christopher Grindstaff Why do we as a society spend so much time wailing and gnashing of teeth about Israel and the middle east, when we have three failed states right next door?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy This is an excellent question that certainly needs a lot more attention in Washington. These nations are too interconnected with our own and too close to us for us not to pay more attention. We have a shared history and a shared present, and as a region, we have a wealth of resources that could be used much more effectively if we work together as equals.
Tanya Keilani Though we do give 3 billion a year of our tax dollars to the Israeli military, so we are not as detached as you might think. All these issues are important, and we should examine and reevaluate our role. Thanks for your work, Elizabeth!
Bill Edwards Not a question, but good article and story about why relatively few Nicaraguan chidren are going to the US border as compared to those from Honduras, El Salvador, etc. However, the story misses the single biggest reason; Nic’s neighbor to the south – Costa Rica. Go to Costa Rica and you will find an estimated 400,000 – 600,000 “Nicas” living in Costa Rica. Many legally and have established residency; others in the process of doing so, and many others simply living in undocumented and informal work in CR. For years Costa Rica has served as a relatively safe haven for Nicas looking for economic betterment and, of course, the journey from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is relatively inexpensive by bus and much safer than the journey to the US. For your reporters not to even mention this is amazing; how and why was this not even mentioned?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thank you for raising this, Bill. You are correct that it has received little attention, and indeed, there are unknown numbers of unaccompanied child migrants from Nicaragua in Costa Rica. It has also received little attention that even within this context, increasing numbers of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are seeking asylum in Nicaragua.
Bill Edwards I am not sure your team of reporters still understand what I am trying to convey. I do not believe there are any significant number of unaccompanied children from Nicaragua going to or living in Costa Rica. The point is that there are entire Nicaraguan families and / or many Nicaraguan adults who live in Costa Rica – some of those Nicaraguan parents have their children living in Nicaragua and send money home to them from Costa Rica. Because it is so cheap to go by bus from CR to Nic and return (usually you can go back and forth in one day) and Nicaraguans receive a 30 day visa to reside in CR; they can renew their 30 day visas indefinitely and many do. The basic point is that many Nicaraguans prefer to live in Costa Rica for economic purposes and can go back and forth fairly easily. Most of the Nicaraguan children I observe are happy to live in Nicaragua even if their parents are in Costa Rica – they live with grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. There is a big story here and I hope maybe you can report on it. If you extrapolated the number of Nicaraguans living – legally and extra legally and illegally – in Costa Rica and checked that as a % of the entire number of people living in Costa Rica and then compared that % with the number of migrants coming to the US you might be able to understand the dimensions of what I am saying. This is a huge issue in Costa Rica and I think that, by and large, CR does a good job of coping with this.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thank you for following up, Bill. I am not a reporter but rather do research with child migrants and forced migrants, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. I really appreciate you further describing the presence of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica and hope to learn more before leaving the region. While travel is cheap and easy between the two nations, and finding work that pays a good wage for Nicaragua is not hard, I do know that Nicaraguans face discrimination from some Costa Ricans. Also, at least some Nicaraguan adolescents are the ones working in Costa Rica and remitting the money to their families. I agree that what you highlight needs a lot more attention and that this easy movement and integration between the two nations could serve as a model for neighboring nations.
Bill Edwards Yes, I think you are absolutely correct in what you are saying about Nicas in CR. I have many Nica friends living in CR (and also Nicas living in Nic and who previously lived in CR, etc.) so I am speaking from first hand knowledge and not govt statistics – and actually not sure how accurate the govt statistics are in Nic and CR since a lot of this is in the informal economy, etc. And you are absolutely correct about discrimination from Ticos vis a vis Nicas. This is a complicated subject and one additional factor are the strict CR labor laws and high mandatory fringe benefit rate of (I believe) about 36 – 38% after 90 days of employment; this has the impact of having many CR employers terminate Nicas on the 85- 89 days. I realize you are not a reporter however it appears you are an important source for some reporters on this multi faceted issue. You can PM me if you want more information or to follow up. I lived in Central America for several years however no longer do live there; I do travel there from time to time. All the best to you in your research.
Kevin Hopson Hi. Why isn’t the United States enforcing it’s laws and what consequences will not enforcing those laws have in the future?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy In what way do you believe the United States is not enforcing its laws? Recent reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesKids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Women’s Refugee Commission, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and UC Hastings have documented that at least half of these children have international protection needs. My own research in El Salvador right now is consistent with their findings. The United States agreed to protect persons fleeing for their lives when it signed and enacted refugee accords in line with international humanitarian and human rights law in 1980. Thus, by accepting these children and allowing them to present their case in court, the U.S. is following its laws. The consequences of not doing so is that these children could be returned to harm, and in the worst case scenario, be murdered. Returning someone to harm, torture or murder is against international law, which the U.S. agreed to uphold when it signed the Convention Against Torture.
Kevin Hopson Do immigrants lawfully have to apply for citizenship?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Migrants, from any country, can legalize their status before or after migrating. Many Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans attempt to obtain a visa in order to take a safe and legal journey to the United States. Because the minimum wage in their countries is between $150 and $300 a month, most are rejected because they cannot show sufficient economic resources for approval. Thus, it is not fair to say they have not tried to migrate legally. Many of them would much prefer a safe flight (that would cost significantly less — $500-800 versus $5,000-10,000) than risking abuse, assault, maiming, murder, rape, forced labor, dehydration, hypothermia and a host of other ills on the 1,000+ mile journey through Mexico. Regardless, the whole reason humanitarian and human rights law exists is for people living in nations which no longer protect them. When the Jews who could fled Germany in the 1930s, they were also turned away, and history has shown us that had they stayed, they likely would have been murdered. For this reason, refugee law came into being. Thus, the question has to be: ten, twenty or thirty years from now, on what side of history will we be? Because the United States turned away Jews, and we turned away Central Americans in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and we were proven to be in the wrong in doing so.
Kevin Hopson Thanks for the excellent and informative replies.  Are these people that we are speaking of in the United States legally?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy You’re very welcome, Kevin. Although Central American children and adults may have crossed the border without the appropriate legal documents, they may still be in the country legally if they receive a visa, asylum or other relief at the conclusion of their immigration proceedings.
Wendy Rosensweig Could those children be adopted by Americans? If so what needs to be done in order to do so ?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thank you for your willingness to care for a young person in need. Unaccompanied child migrants who are determined not to have parents or legal guardians enter the U.S. foster system. Thus, you should contact your state agency responsible for foster care and ask them about the possibility of adopting a child migrant. The articles linked above by Dara Lind (http://www.vox.com/…/children-border-how-help-donate… ) with Vox and UNO (http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/unaccompaniedlinks.php) have more information as well.
Douglas A. Gomez Do you think politicians and government authorities in countries like El Salvador have also proven to be ill prepared and unwilling at times to deal with this situation?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy This is an excellent and complex question. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, there are some excellent officials who are very willing and very prepared to deal with this situation and with root causes of economic inequality, extreme poverty, insecurity, lack of economic and educational opportunities, transnational families, etc.. I know them, I’ve seen them in action doing all that they can as individuals, and they genuinely inspire me.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy As is the case in any nation though, there are also officials who are not prepared or who are not willing. This is especially critical, because it results in a breakdown in citizen confidence and the social contract when those who live in these nations do not trust their government officials. I have interviewed a large number of citizens from each nation that lack trust and confidence because of the documented cases of corruption. These high levels of corruption have also been reported by the United States Department of State, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others. Corruption is especially harmful, because it complicates the recovery that a society will need. Until citizens are comfortable reporting crimes, crimes cannot be combatted. Until citizens trust each other, they do not take back their streets. Until people do not fear saying the truth, it cannot be fully uncovered.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy At the same time, all three countries have much smaller operating budgets than the United States or Mexico does, so their capacity is limited alongside limited willingness. Likewise, their infrastructure is limited because of smaller operating budgets and civil wars (or civil unrest in the case of Honduras) that only ended a few decades ago.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The Salvadoran and Honduran presidents have recently taken office, and each has a very different plan for how to right its nation’s course. President Sanchez Ceren in El Salvador would like to focus on economic and social development, and I think this is the right approach since it would get at the root causes of both endemic violence and large numbers of emigration (out-migration). With crime rates so high though, there has to be a focus on protection, although hopefully, these governments can incorporate a more rehabilitative justice system and community policing, both of which have proven very successful in Nicaragua, which despite being the second poorest nation in Latin America also has the second lowest homicide rates.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Right now, all three nations have a very difficult task ahead of them, made more difficult by the fact that U.S. policy and influence (and Mexican policy and influence) weigh heavily on present and past developments in the region. No country wants to say they are not adequately protecting their citizens, but until they acknowledge this, they cannot develop the solutions necessary.
Jenny Wilcox Callahan Why do you think this particular refugee situation has inflamed so much anger ?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy U.S. politics are particularly divisive right now on any issue, and large amounts of lobbying by private prisons like CCA and GeoGroup who financially benefit from having 34,000 migrants detained a day has resulted in more hatred on the topic of migration. Underscoring the ads they fund is a strain of racism that has always been harnessed against migrants, whether it was Chinese a century ago, the Irish after, the Jewish after that, Central Americans in the 1980s, etc., it taps into the fear of the unknown instead of the common humanity we all share. As citizens, we must ask ourselves: to what end?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy At the same time, in the U.S., we view Latin American immigrants (whether from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Chile or elsewhere) as economic migrants. Many who have come historically came to work in our industries to further support the growth of the United States and the region. Because migrants are often willing to work for lower wages for longer hours, this does create tension among the poorest within U.S. society who stand to make less and possibly lose their jobs. What is sad though is that these are the citizens in the U.S. who often have the most in common with migrants trying to create a better life for themselves.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thus, many question why this group is currently being designated as refugees if they’ve always been viewed as economic migrants. The problematic piece is that many were refugees in the past as well.
Kevin Hopson I think the most loving thing you can do for these kids and the other people who are with them is to safely and securely fly them back to their homes. If the country’s laws are not enforced, the risk of more children enduring the same abuse becomes escalated. In fact, many assert that this crisis began with the President claiming that he would not enforce our laws and in doing so gave incentive for illegal migration to the United States.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The US-Mexico border is more secure than it has ever been. We are spending more money on walls, drones, agents, towers, etc. than we ever have. President Obama has deported more migrants than any other president. You can read more here: http://www.wola.org/…/after_the_buildup_security_and…. Thus, this is NOT an enforcement issue. This is a humanitarian issue and a refugee crisis partially of the U.S.’s making by irresponsible and short-sighted foreign policy decisions historically and presently. While some of these children (and Central American adults) could return to their homes without being harmed, many have fled to the U.S. because they were in great danger. I encourage you to watch this CBS news piece (http://www.cbsnews.com/…/child-immigrants-face-grave…/). The 15 yo recounts how he, his father and mother tried to flee to the U.S. They were detained in Mexico and deported. His father was murdered days later. This is not an isolated case, and I encourage you to look at my Twitter account (EGKennedySD), where I retweet news articles about murdered U.S. deportees. It is not loving to return people to their death. It is wrong, inhumane and against international law.
Mark Anderson I am suspicious that many parents send their kids with an agenda to get a family member legalized then join them. How true is this, partially true?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thanks for this question, Mark. I’ve touched upon the reasons that children migrate in other responses and encourage you to look through them. In the Salvadoran case, over 90 percent of the children I’ve interviewed over the past eight months have at least one family member who is already in the U.S. Over half have a mom or dad or mom and dad in the U.S., and many have U.S.-born siblings, cousins and grandparents. Thus, these children are already our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, cousins and friends. Children who are arriving must conclude their immigration proceedings before they will have legal status, and with the President requesting expedited processing, whether or not they will get a fair trial is very much up for debate. For those who do get status, unfortunately, children do not have the same rights to family reunification that adults do, so it would take until the child’s 18th birthday for her or him to be able to send for a child or adult family member.
Lara Ruffolo Hello Elizabeth. My question is, why are these children coming in such a large wave right now? What changed to create this story?
Lara Ruffolo In other words, why is this happening now? Or is it a case of the media finally deciding to cover a long-developing trend?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy This is the question so many reporters and government officials have posed, Lara. One piece is indeed that this has been a long-developing trend that the media finally decided to cover en masse. The unaccompanied alien child program was created in 2002/2003, and from then until 2011, we received between 5,000 and 8,000 unaccompanied child migrants into our humanitarian care a year. Each year, over 80 percent were from three nations: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. A caveat is that many more Mexican unaccompanied child migrants crossed into the U.S. but were not allowed to access humanitarian care and were instead deported within 48 hours per a bilateral agreement. Then, in 2012, the number entering humanitarian care went up to nearly 14,000, and in 2013, it went above 24,000. This year, it will exceed 60,000. Thus, while the numbers have been growing for the past four years, the growth has been incredibly rapid. Whereas the number of Mexican children has remained largely steady, the number of Central Americans have doubled, tripled and quadrupled each year for several years.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Before addressing the reasons for this, I would highlight that the U.S. has received large numbers of unaccompanied child migrants before. The first migrant at Ellis Island was an unaccompanied girl from Europe. From 1960 to 1962, over 14,000 Cuban children arrived to the U.S. unaccompanied as part of Operation Peter Pan, and throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, an unknown number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan children fled civil wars to the U.S. Even though the U.S. is the largest official receiver of refugees worldwide, this only accounts for those who are officially resettled. Most of the world’s refugees are in neighboring, developing nations with far fewer resources than the U.S., the E.U., Australia or Japan. Thus, these wealthier nations need to be much more realistic about not only their capacity to receive refugees but also their responsibility to do so.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Now, to the reasons for why the rapid increase over the past four years. First and foremost, violence and instability is increasing in all three countries. You are more likely to die in Honduras than in any other place in the world except Syria and possibly South Sudan. You are more likely to die in El Salvador than Iraq or Afghanistan. These countries have high homicide and crime rates, and the state’s ability and willingness to protect its citizens is limited in the face of increasingly powerful transnational criminal groups like gangs and cartels. So, why the increase in violence? Importantly, extreme crackdowns on gangs to lock them all up based upon zero tolerance policies in the U.S. exported here had the opposite effect: it put gang members who previously did not know each other in a central location, allowed them to meet and network, and then further stigmatized them in the public eye so that they’d have no option but to stick together. At the same time, as U.S.-funded programs have broken apart cartels in Colombia and then in Mexico, they are now moving into the Caribbean and Central America. As they do so, they bring with them an influx of arms, cash, military training and international networks. This does two things at once: (1) it incentivizes the control of territory, which increases fighting as they are getting more sophisticated weapons; and (2) it increases the revenues with which these criminal groups can pay bribes and the force with which they can make threats. So, the ability of the state to combat them decreases as they become more powerful and better armed, and the willingness decreases as more are threatened or bribed. This is the macro-level picture. At the micro-level, the people living in these communities are seeing these crimes, murders and bribes regularly, and they become less confident in anyone and more afraid. Many tell me that they are “desperate,” that they can trust no one, that there is no future and no right to dream … only to have nightmares.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The final piece is that Central Americans do typically live in concentrated communities within the U.S. Thus, when a number of families manage to reunite with their children, other families take notice. Because they have been separated for so long and scared for so long, they weigh the risks of a very dangerous journey against a very dangerous childhood/adolescence in the home country. As I describe more fully in a report with the American Immigration Council (http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/…/no-childhood-here…), and as previously mentioned reports indicate, many decide it is less risky to migrate than to stay. Likewise, adult family members who wanted to return no longer feel safe to do so. Thus, this should be the emphasis: because Central Americans in these nations are so desperate, they look for the few opportunities that exist to have a chance at a better future.
Lara Ruffolo Wow, thank you so much for this comprehensive, comprehensible answer. I feel honored that you shared you knowledge with me and the wider PRI community.
Almir Mulasmajic I came to the United States legally from ex Yugoslavia, I was responsible for all my expenses including my airfare, I am now United States citizen, and we send paperwork for my brother in law to legally immigrated to the United States, well guess what he needs to wait 14 years to the State Department clear them off.can you answer me why, ..I have a feeling it will be better off to go to Mexico and then cross the border..
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thank you for your question, Almir. I’m sorry that your brother-in-law faces such a long wait. This is the side of immigration that most U.S. citizens do not understand, and I must acknowledge that I am not an immigration lawyer — you should consult one. Wait times to receive visas in advance are determined by country quotas. Thus, people from some countries have to wait longer than people from other countries. As long as 14 years is, people from India, Mexico, Central American nations and other places have much longer waits. If your brother-in-law could move himself into a highly skilled category by obtaining a STEM degree, he might have a shorter wait, but again, an immigration lawyer will give you much better information. I wish you and your family luck.
Almir Mulasmajic thank you for your answer I know that you are not immigration lawyer even immigration lawyer cannot help him..and he has two little children , little girl 4 , and son 9…
Abraham Cisne Firstly, this Q&A is awesome, EK. Thanks. Credible recent reports seem to indicate that an overwhelming majority of the general US population, and even among Repubs, consider that the recent minors arriving at our borders are refugees whose cases should be considered for some form of residency in the U.S. With the bill passed in the U.S. House and upcoming mid-term elections, what direction do you think U.S. immigration policy will take in the not-so-distant future?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thanks for your kind words, Abraham, and you’re welcome. Yes, I link the recently released survey you reference (http://publicreligion.org/…/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors/) in my response to Veronica below. While I read U.S. news daily, because I have been residing in El Salvador since October, I do not feel I have a good grasp of which direction U.S. immigration policy is headed (although I could tell you a lot about which direction I think El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are headed!). I hope that U.S. immigration policy will focus less on enforcement (since, as I mention in a response to Kevin under Jenny’s original question, our border is more secure than it has ever been, and we are deporting more people than we ever have) and more on humanity. U.S. citizen children have a right to grow up with their moms, dads, brothers and sisters, and our system needs to accommodate that. Children and adults who have lived the better part of their lives in the U.S. should have a path to citizenship, especially when they are giving so much to our communities. Various parts of our economy rely on migrant labor, and we should make it easy for those who only make our society better to travel freely and participate fully in their families; they will be better workers and community members as a result. While not part of immigration policy, the U.S. also needs to review its refugee policy in relation to Central Americans and Mexicans. Many are fleeing these countries and face very difficult odds of winning their asylum cases for a number of reasons. We must make sure that we offer protection to those who need it and do not reject them simply because they are our neighbors.
Abraham Cisne Thanks. It would be good to hear which direction El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras may take.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Abraham, this is a big question, but I will tackle it broadly and quickly. The three heads of state of each nation agree that the influx of child migrants to the U.S. is a regional problem that will require regional solutions. President Obama and President Pena Nieto have agreed. The Northern Triangle countries also agree that Central American transnational families have too few options to legally see each other and that U.S. demand for drugs is creating detrimental effects for countries where cartels grow and move these drugs. Also, all three presidents agree that U.S. presence and policy in the region over time has shaped this trend today.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The Honduran President has taken the drug demand piece a step further and has speculated that seven of nine of Honduran child migrants are refugees from the U.S.’s War on Drugs. As a result, in-country processing to screen these children for asylum so that they could travel safely to the U.S. or another third country has been proposed. This is potentially a good idea if no quotas are set, Hondurans who arrive at the U.S. border can still seek asylum, and a number of other factors are also set. At the same time, Honduras is specifically angling for more military and security aid, which is problematic given their human rights record, high levels of corruption in police and military forces, and great need for economic and social development (Dana Frank at UC, Santa Cruz – http://history.ucsc.edu/about/singleton.php… researches this in depth). The newly elected Honduran president is on the right, and he campaigned with the slogan that he would put a soldier on every corner. Thus, as happy as I am with how he has defended the protection needs of Honduran children, I am also worried that he wants to further militarize the Honduran state.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The Guatemalan President has heavily downplayed the role of violence in why Guatemalan children are leaving. You can read his exact opinions in his recent OpEd for The Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/…/child-migrants-to-us… . In the Central American media, he has emphasized the need for family visas and the extreme poverty that Guatemala’s indigenous leave. While it is true that most Guatemalan child migrants are indigenous, and from very poor areas because of racism that still exists against these groups, it is also true that a large number of Guatemalan children are leaving urban areas where gangs are just as prevalent as in El Salvador and Honduras and border areas where cartels are causing trouble. Thus, the Guatemalan state will have to acknowledge this piece if it hopes to full address the root causes.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The Salvadoran President most recently took office, and unlike his Honduran and Guatemalan counterparts, he is on the left. He would like to continue and progress economic and social programs begun under the previous FMLN president. He and the left believe that by investing in economic and social development, they will also address endemic violence. I personally agree, but there are a large number of citizens and two powerful political parties who think that police and military solutions are the best way to address the violence. Within this context, the official stance in El Salvador is that Salvadoran children are leaving for a number or reasons (all those listed above), and violence is just one of them. This is certainly true, but in aforementioned studies by UNHCR, KIND, WRC, UCCSB, and UC-Hastings and in my interviews with over 500 children over the past eight months, violence is the most commonly cited reason. So, as is the case with the Guatemalan government, the Salvadoran government will have to acknowledge this prevalence if it hopes to effectively address the root causes.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Finally, in all three countries, the services and programs available to returning child and adult migrants have been limited at best, at times completely dependent on the heart and work ability of individual migration or child protection agents. In Honduras, Casa Alianza has worked with this population for a number of years as best as their resources allow. In Guatemala, Kids in Need of Defense has a great Return and Reintegration program that partners with six local NGOs. In El Salvador, individuals within DGME, the Cancilleria and CONMIGRANTES have helped whenever they could. Now though, with the promise of funding, many organizations who have worked with at-risk or underserved children are preparing to compete for that funding and offer services to this group. This is really promising, but it also requires that organizations are rigorously screened, that proposals and programming are evidence-based, and that there’s oversight and guidance, especially in initial phases. Likewise, whatever programs are created to assist returned children should also incorporate children in those sending communities who have not yet migrated.
Edward John Bilek For most of my life I lived on the edge of poverty. Coming up with a few hundred dollars for an emergency was difficult, to say the least. Most of the stories about the families who send their minor children north are described as very poor, yet they are able to raise several hundreds of dollars to pay smugglers. How do they do this?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The average family income of those I have interviewed over the past eight months in El Salvador (even factoring in remittances) is between $100 and $500 per month, with most earning about $300. The cost of living here is quite high. For example, the veggies and fruits I buy here often cost more than they did in California. These families are often poor here, and their family members in the U.S. are often poor as well, even though they frequently work two or three jobs for a total of 60-90 hours a week. Migrants who get money to pay a coyote/guia/smuggler do so through cut-rate lenders. They take out loans at exorbitant interest rates that they will likely never be able to pay back. This only raises the incentive to keep migrating until one reaches the U.S., because you must pay half the fee before leaving and the other half upon arriving.
Veronica Noguera The refuge situation hasn’t inflamed anger yet, I believe. But that’s just me!
Elizabeth G. Kennedy A recent survey indicated that 70 percent of U.S. citizens now believe that Central American children who have arrived to the U.S. are refugees (read more here: http://publicreligion.org/…/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors/). This is promising. Now, we wait to see how our nation will respond. When people are recognized as refugees, they are entitled to services to transition into U.S. society and to begin a path to citizenship. They are not returned to their origins, because it is recognized that their state could not or would not protect them. So, I hope the U.S. respects and fulfills its international obligations and serves as a model for other nations in the world.
Chris Rames What polices and immediate diplomatic action can the US administration take to assist affected countries and begin to help them improve their situations at home and stop the cartel and and gang violence? What are they doing already, and is it effective enough?
Elizabeth G. Kennedy United States involvement in the region has often contributed to the problems we still see today. We have supported military dictatorships, unequal development, free trade agreements that moved jobs from already poor farmers in Central America to the U.S., lack of legal options for transnational families to see each other, police and military with long histories of human rights abuses, etc. So I would first recommend that the U.S. take a long-term view of its policy in the region instead of the short term: how will what we’re doing today affect us as a region 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now? I don’t think our government asks that enough.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thus, I would second recommend that the U.S. stop deporting gang and cartel members until these nations no longer have overflowing prisons and the world’s highest homicide rates and until the police and military have the sufficient citizen confidence in them required to be effective. More often than not, gang and cartel members receive their training in our nation, so it is our responsibility.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy I would third recommend that the U.S. shift its funding from military and security efforts like CARSI, that have thus far resulted in a rise in human rights abuses, overflowing prisons and higher crime, to economic and social development programs instead. With that said, economic and social programs must be evidence-based and have oversight. There is no reason that programs proven ineffective in the U.S. — like D.A.R.E., for example — should be funded and operating in other countries. At the same time, if an NGO or non-profit receives funding, it should be able to show how that funding is used. If it cannot do so, it should not receive funding again.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy I would fourth recommend that the U.S. consider creating a visa for children and parents who participate in transnational families. I meet so many Central Americans who applied for a visa and were rejected. As a result, desperate or feeling empty inside because they have not seen their loved one in 10 or more years, they travel the only way they can. By not offering legal options for this travel, our government inadvertently supports organized crime and coyotes, and that is dangerous for everyone involved.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy In countries of origin, the focus has to be on building capacity and offering economic and social development. Thus, when governments want to do this and suggest evidence-based ways to do so, the U.S. should be supportive and should provide financial resources to the extent possible.
Chris Rames Thank you for your response. I too agree that US involvement has fueled the situation today. It is my opinion that the US needs to adopt the Seventh Generation thinking model. In this model you ask and answer to the best of your ability how the decisions you make now will impact the Seventh most future generations. Long term thinking is of course necessary in planning, however the present often throws that thinking into crisis, like we have now. Would the region be better served if we withdrew and let them solve the situation on their own? Again, thank you for this discussion. I know you have many other questions to answer but I appreciate you taking the time to answer mine.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy You’re very welcome, Chris. Thank you for your question and response, and I agree with what you propose. As a region, we are too interdependent to withdraw from each other, so we must focus now on how to genuinely work together as equals towards solutions that benefit those in the region equally.
Chris Rames Ah, that word, equals, is not used enough when talking about our place in the world. Though we were and are a unique and exceptional county it seems we never looked at the rest of the world as equals, as people who have lives, families, emotions, concerns and their own interests. Instead we looked at them and their governments as a means to an end, and treated them as such. Thank you for the insight Ms. Kennedy.
Steve Keats Bill. Very good commentary. Interestingly apart from the Nicas who left during the war to Miami sand Costa Rica, Nicaragua is one of the safest in Central America. Why? Because the gangs have not managed to take control as they have in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  Why are these chikdren and people taking the risk to seek refuge? Because the gangs threaten their lives and these Governments are standing by… Some leaders are in cahoots with these racketeers. The Matatuchas et al good their training in the US cities before being deported as undesirable. Our government needs to help Central America wipe out the gangs , retake control of security and you will see the flow to USA diminish
Elizabeth G. Kennedy Thanks for this comment, Steve. I go into much more depth in responses already written. Indeed, the gang and cartel members in Central America were frequently trained in the U.S. before being deported here, and because reintegration programs do not exist, they often are left with few options but to continue in a life of crime. As I’ve indicated in previous responses, to create security in these countries, economic and social development that incorporates former criminals will be necessary.

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