WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Jun 2014 | Commentary | News

The Plight of Migrant Children at the Border Highlights Need to Invest in Central America

President Obama recently announced a new initiative to respond to the dramatic increase in unaccompanied migrant children illegally entering the United States at the southern border. Over 47,000 unaccompanied migrant children have come to the United States so far this fiscal year—almost 35,000 from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras alone—leading President Obama to call in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to manage the response.

The shock of seeing all of these children, literally on our doorstep, should prompt policymakers to do some soul searching about why children flee, why parents allow them to, and whether it makes sense to spend one billion dollars detaining and deporting Central American children while spending only $98.7 million on development assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and $161.5 million for these and other countries as part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for this fiscal year.

The number of minors arriving at the U.S. border is staggering, especially considering population sizes in Central America. For example, 9,850 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol from October of 2013 to May of 2014. There are 2.37 million children in El Salvador, according to UNICEF figures, meaning that approximately one out of every 240 children in the country tried to cross into the United States in the last eight months and was detained by Border Patrol in the process. The percentages are similar for Honduras and slightly lower, but still shocking, for Guatemala.

It gives you pause–the image of a child or a teenager, without a parent or guardian, seeking to make his way from San Salvador or San Pedro Sula, all the way to the United States. Some of these children are transported by smugglers, who are often in collusion with organized criminal groups, and some travel alone. They are all vulnerable to the many perils that plague migrants during their journey through Mexico: criminal gangs demanding money of migrants who ride the train north, often throwing off those who cannot pay; unscrupulous officials seeking pay-offs; and organized criminal groups in search of kidnapping victims or drug mules. What motivates a person to face all of that danger and uncertainty?

Recent press accounts have suggested that migrant women and children are coming to the United States under the perception that they will be allowed to stay in the country. Smugglers seeking more clients may also be feeding into this idea. The Obama administration has made clear that its immigration enforcement policy has not changed, and, indeed, border infrastructure and manpower has increased in the past decade. Vice President Biden’s trip to Guatemala this week will reinforce this message.

However, more important than the pull of this perception are the “push” factors driving this wave of migration: the factors that make potential migrants, especially children and teenagers, decide to leave El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala to come to the United States.

Behind this wave of migration, two underlying factors stand out. The first is the threat of violence in the migrants’ home communities, for which youth are especially at risk. Violence is a severe problem in parts of Central America. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. Domestic violence and child abuse are widespread. Gangs engage in violent turf disputes, the extortion of local businesses and residents, and small-scale drug dealing, and target youth for membership recruitment. The gangs have become difficult social and criminal phenomena in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America over the past decade.

Few protections from violence exist as effective public security institutions are seriously lacking. Police forces are poorly paid and have understaffed patrol divisions that cannot deter crime. Detective units do not effectively investigate crime and corruption, and criminal infiltration of the police allows crime and violence to flourish with little response from government authorities.

Added to the problem of violence is the lack of opportunity, especially for young people, the poor, and the lower-middle class. In rural areas, small farmers face difficult barriers producing for local markets. Seventy-five percent of those living in rural areas in Honduras live in poverty. Seasonal work on the bigger farms that export coffee, sugar, and other crops is poorly paid. Coffee, a primary cash crop in Central America, is suffering from a devastating fungus called “coffee rust.” The New York Times reported that “twenty percent of the half-million jobs in Guatemala directly tied to the crop have already disappeared…”

In the cities, jobs in the formal sector that provide health and social security contributions and pay taxes can be scarce, and wages are relatively low. A 2012 World Bank study stated that employment in Central America continues to be primarily in low-skilled jobs with low-skilled workers, underscoring the need to create more jobs—particularly “jobs that can break the poverty cycle and contribute to sustained economic growth.” In poor communities, where access to resources is scarce and education levels are relatively low, many youth see gang life (living by extortion and small-scale drug dealing) as one of the few viable economic alternatives.

Given this context, it is little wonder that worried minors consider fleeing their environments, or that parents and relatives help them seek safety by migrating to the United States.

A recent study by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed 300 unaccompanied minors from Central America who had been detained by Border Patrol about their reasons for leaving. Poverty and lack of opportunity were key factors in the decision to migrate. Additionally, 31 percent listed violence or threats of violence from gangs or organized criminal groups as a primary factor in their decision to leave, and another 16 percent listed other forms of social violence. Twenty percent mentioned abuse or violence in the home.

These are profoundly difficult problems, and there is no magic solution to them. Nonetheless, more should be done to mitigate the entrenched problems causing so many minors to, out of desperation, undertake a dangerous journey to the United States.

What can be done to mitigate the push factors?

Levels of violence can be reduced. In the Salvadoran suburb of Santa Tecla, for example, a multi-year effort begun in 2003 is paying off. Through community councils and local violence prevention programs, the city, with a large population and significant social problems, has been able to achieve a 40 percent drop in homicides compared with the rates in surrounding communities.

The evidence suggests that continuing investment in community-based violence prevention initiatives, that involve local community groups, churches, police, and social service and government agencies, can make a real difference. As was illustrated in a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme, when these initiatives are combined with serious efforts to clean up police corruption and improve police performance and morale, the impact can be significant.

Similarly, targeted efforts to generate employment opportunities can pay off. These efforts require commitment on the part of local and national governments in Central America, and an investment of political capital from the United States and other donors (the EU, the UN, etc.). But they pay off: they can help reduce crime and violence, and the forces that compel minors to make the dangerous decision to migrate illegally to the United States.

By the standards of what we are now investing in immigration enforcement—$18 billion a year—and what we are planning to invest in temporary housing and detention centers for unaccompanied minors—over one billion dollars this year—our current investments in violence prevention and development assistance in Central America pale in comparison.