Thursday, August 14, 2014

Child Migrants from Central America

The White House released a factsheet in June about the rapidly growing numbers of children from Central America unaccompanied by a parent and that are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. The Administration remains greatly concerned by this rise and mentions that these children are vulnerable, and many become victims of violent crime or sexual abuse along the dangerous journey.

There has been a more than 120 per cent surge in the numbers of Honduran children picked up on the US border compared with 2013. Child migrants from El Salvador have increased more than 100 per cent and from Guatemala by nearly 60 per cent.

Unaccompanied C.-A.-children crossing the US-Mexico border
(Click to Enlarge)

In the United States, these children are faced with a new set of challenges; a border patrol system unequipped to handle them and a future filled with uncertainty. The Obama administration made it quite clear that these 'immigrants' will be send back if illegal. A good story about what these children are going through can be read here.

These unaccompanied children who decide to leave their (grand-)parents, family and friends and to take on a very dangerous journey to the US for an uncertain future to avoid all the violence in their home neighborhood, are more to be considered as asylum seekers than illegal immigrants and should therefore be treated as asylum seekers.

Unaccompanied Alien Children by Location of Origin
(Click to Enlarge)

Until recently, children used to be lured into gang life in regions like Central America for numerous factors such as: poverty, security, lack of education and employment, as well as the erosion of other systematic institutions. See for instance my blogpost about the violence in Honduras. Unfortunately nowadays, children in Guatemala, El Salvador and  Honduras are more and more violently recruited by use of gunpoint, rape, extortion and kidnapping.

History of C.-A. Street Gangs

The transnational gang phenomenon in Central America dates back to the initial mass migration of refugees, fleeing civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. Many settled in Los Angeles, especially a large population of Salvadorans, who moved into working-class urban neighborhoods like Pico-Union and Koreatown.

At that time there was already heavy gang presence in Los Angeles, predominantly Mexican-American and African-American gangs. Some Central American youths began drawing together for protection, the kernel of what eventually became Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), an L.A. gang that has by now become a powerful international criminal organization. Others joined the rival 18th Street (Barrio18) gang, an offshoot of an established gang that accepted Central American youths. At the same time, U.S. immigration laws were growing tougher in relation to immigrants who committed crimes, especially those with gang ties. From the late 1980s on, a series of laws made it easier to deport immigrants with criminal records.

Especially the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRAIRA, broadly expanded the list of crimes for which people could be deported, even if these offenses were committed in the past. It also took away protection for legal residents, meaning even people who were in the U.S. legally and had spent most of their lives here could be removed if they committed a deportable offense. When these young men arrived in their country they initially fled, there was no infrastructure to help them adjust. Many deportees did not speak Spanish well and/or were rejected for their gang tattoos by their relatives and ended up homeless. Disenfranchised local kids together with US deportees joined together to become a fast growing violent street gang pest.The fragile democracies that were established after the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador turned out to be fertile ground for street gangs and drug trafficking. Because of the ever strong cocaine-demand in the US and the US WOD policy to firmly combat the supply-chain, drug trafficking in Central America became much more prominent and violent.

Causes of the Growing Numbers of Child Migrants

While this phenomenon is going on for several years now, the real cause of  the increase of C.-A. child migrants to the US looks like not thoroughly investigated yet, at least it is not communicated. So one should question all the proposals that are being made by politicians to "solve the problem". The Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments are - understandably - not questioning  the child migrants for their reasons before they leave the country; the US authorities can only ask child migrants for their decision to flee their neighborhood and country.

One of the stories that come forward are that — according to The Daily Beast — many parents are desperate to keep their children from becoming victims of gang violence or being forced into gang activity. Coyotes — smugglers and traffickers — have sensed an opportunity to expand business beyond Mexico, where migration has been declining in recent years. They continue to spread stories that are half true or not true anymore and that are believed by migrants, such as:
  • DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. DACA  allows undocumented immigrants who were brought here illegally as children and have US high school degree the right to get temporary work permits and stay in the US legally for two years. Permits can be renewed every 2 year and applicants have to be younger than 31. However, there is quite a downside and an anti-DACA bill is on the way.
  • President Obama's 2008 campaign promise, 'La Promesa de Obama' for immigration reform, that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million people. Senator Menendez introduced The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010 SB 3932, but it was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and is still awaiting a vote. Never the less, Speaker John A. Boehner told Obama in June he will not allow a vote this year.
  • The 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPA). The TVPA contains a provision guaranteeing formal deportation hearings for child immigrants not from Mexico and Canada and without family in the United States. These hearings often don’t occur for years. Legislation proposed by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., specifically calls for amending the 2008 law

About 75 to 80 percent of so-called unaccompanied minors actually travel with coyotes and some pay criminal organizations such as the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) or groups associated with Los Zetas to lead them through Mexico, at a cost of $3,000 to $10,000 per person, depending on the migrant’s age, gender, and origin.

Also pandillas and clicas (street gangs) are recruiting ever more violently youngsters in such a way, that the only way out for them is to flee their neighborhood to family members in the US.

So the next question is, why are street gangs recruiting more violently since the last couple of years? There are a few reasons one could think of:
  • Higher Mortality Rate of gang-members. MS13 and Barrio18 are the most well-known gangs, but there are many more smaller gangs active in the cities. Gangs have become present almost everywhere in the cities. That means more gang-wars and more dead gang-members.  It seems that gang-members care more and more less about killing or being killed. They use drugs frequently. If a gang wants to keep its strength it has to continue to recruit youth.
  • Intensified prosecution. The authorities are combating street gangs more intensively. "Mano Duro" (heavy handed) seems still to become the rule. Police officers often kill gang-members in combat. Gang-members that are prosecuted and jailed will usually not receive any rehabilitation during or after imprisonment; gang-activities even continue during imprisonment. Rehabilitation programs for active gang-members are very scarce. "Mano Duro" seems to lead to more violence and more dead or imprisoned gang-members. They can only be replaced by recruiting youngsters more intensively.
  • A big city infested with street gangs is extremely difficult to clean up for the authorities. "Mano dura" policies have been introduced in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but these policies seem to have been not very effective, so far. On the contrary, locals are resorting to popular justice more often, adding even more violence and lawlessness in society. A sharp increase in the monthly average of lynch mob attacks between 2004 and 2013 in Guatemala, is indicating that this is becoming an increasingly common response to gang violence. So called 'Intelligence Fusion Centers' might be more effective. The difficulty is that street-gangs are very tied to their territory, that is the neighborhood from where they operate. If the authorities clean up one neighborhood, bordering street-gangs will immediately extend their territories.  
  • The migration of young adults from the big cities in C.-A. and the violent recruiting of new young gang-members is a self-reinforcing effect. As more young adults are leaving the city, less young adults will be left over to recruit as gang-members.


US policies

In the first week of July, the White House sought $3.7bn in extra funding to address child migrant crisis and announced plans to introduce fast track deportations. $116m was budgeted to pay for the cost of transporting unaccompanied children back home.  A further $300m would be spent in Central America to support repatriation efforts, border control and help improve local security conditions which are blamed for driving many families to risk putting their children in the hands of smugglers. The bulk of the money, some $1.8bn, was to be spent by the Department of Health and Human Services on providing care for unaccompanied children awaiting detention, while "detention alternatives" such as ankle bracelets would be increased. However Obama's $3.7bn got stuck in the US congress and will probably end up somewhere below $1.5bn.

In July Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, together proposed legislation  that would include changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and allow children from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to be returned within a week of their arrival in the US rather than holding them for months/years as they await a full asylum hearing, as currently required.

In July the Obama administration said it was considering a program to screen people in some central American countries to see if they qualified to enter the US on humanitarian grounds.

Honduras' president Hernandez en Guatemala's president Perez asked president Obama for a regional security initiative to combat organized crime.
According to Prensa Libre Hernandez said Plan Colombia and Mexico's Merida Initiative -- billion-dollar US funded security programs to combat organized crime -- have been successful in their target areas, but pushed drug trafficking groups into Central America. Both presidents called for a similar program to be implemented in Central America, adding that the impact of the US funded Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has been minimal.
Hernandez and Perez both stated that violence and poverty are behind the recent flood of unaccompanied child migrants across the US border.

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