On April 23, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” push along the U.S.-Mexico border, an inhumane and ill-conceived policy that mandates the criminal prosecution of people who cross the border in search of political asylum, including parents traveling with children. By mid-June, as a result of this policy, more than 2,400 children had been taken from their parents while their parents were being held for trial. In response to the public outcry over this treatment of children and families, on June 20 President Trump signed an executive order that ends family separation while continuing the “zero tolerance” approach. Federal agencies are struggling to determine what the executive order means and how to implement it amid confusion. Apparently, the Trump administration is seeking to detain families together, including asylum seekers.
In another appalling blow to the rights of Central American asylum seekers, earlier this month Attorney General Sessions issued a ruling that seeks to limit the standards by which victims of gender-based and gang-related violence can apply for asylum. These policies—prosecuting asylum seekers for crossing the border, detaining families seeking asylum, and narrowing the conditions to win asylum—are cruel, untenable and have led to a chaotic situation at the border. They undermine the legal and orderly process for seeking asylum and they will have long-term repercussions. Moreover, they ignore the conditions that are leading many Central American women, children, and families to flee their homes.
Legislation introduced by Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Norma J. Torres (D-CA), and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) on June 22, the Central America Family Protection and Reunification Act (CAFPRA), would provide the basis for a more humane and sensible policy. This legislation recognizes the need to address the conditions of violence, corruption, and impunity driving Central Americans to flee in search of safety. It has been co-sponsored by more than 50 members of Congress and endorsed by over a dozen NGOs. The legislation would oppose any government efforts to separate migrant children from their parents and require the State Department and our embassies to work with governments in the region to support family reunification efforts.
Specifically, CAFRA provides timely requirements for the State Department to report on gender-based violence and gang-related violence in the countries of the Northern Triangle and the extent to which the governments of the region are able to hold perpetrators of these crimes accountable. In addition, CAFPRA calls on the State Department to report on serious crimes committed against individuals deported to the Northern Triangle, to develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing gender-based violence, and to establish a clear plan to address the long-term impact that the administration’s family separation policy will have on children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
No policy can succeed unless it takes into account the reasons why people are seeking asylum at U.S. borders. Despite reductions in overall homicide levels, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala continue to be plagued by endemic levels of crime and violence that make many communities extremely dangerous. In 2017, there were 60 homicides per 100,000 people in El Salvador, 42.8 in Honduras, and 26.1 homicides in Guatemala—placing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala among the most violent places in the world not at war.
Children and youths from marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by the high murder rate and violence. Women and girls in particular are vulnerable to persistent levels of gender-based violence. The number of women who have died violent deaths as a percentage of all violent deaths in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala ranks among the highest in the world.
Much of the violence and insecurity are due to the presence of organized criminal groups and the proliferation of local street gangs. In many marginalized communities, gangs enforce curfews, control entry into their neighborhoods, and impose their own rules. Children and young men are often threatened or pressured to join the gangs, while young women often experience sexual assault or abuse at the hands of gang members, forcing many to drop out of school or relocate.
Victims of extortion, sexual abuse, and threats often have nowhere to turn for protection. High levels of corruption and weak state institutions greatly limit the capacity of regional authorities to address endemic levels of violence and insecurity. Crimes typically go unsolved: based on recent figures, impunity rates for homicides are approximately 96-97 percent in Honduras, 95 percent in El Salvador and 87 percent in Guatemala. Transparency International ranks the three countries as highly corrupt in their 2017 Corruption Perception Index, which places El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at 112, 143, and 135 respectively, out of 166 countries.
The permeation of corruption throughout the Northern Triangle has allowed criminal networks to thrive and co-opt state institutions. This, in turn, has more severely jeopardized the ability of governments in this region to provide adequate health, educational, and welfare services—all of which are basic benefits essential for the protection of human rights.
Overall migration to the United States at the southwest border is not overwhelming when compared to the 1990s and mid-2000s. But even as migration at the border is dropping overall, the number of Central American migrants and asylum-seekers detained at the U.S.-Mexico border has steadily increased in recent years. Rather than implementing an inhumane, zero tolerance crackdown, or building a costly, divisive wall, CAFPRA will enable a fact-based discussion about the factors driving migration from Central America, and a more thoughtful and orderly response to asylum and border migration issues. CAFPRA will help us understand why violence and insecurity are driving migration from the Northern Triangle.