Since last October, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended over sixty thousand children fleeing abysmal conditions in Central America. These numbers represent an exponential increase in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United States each year from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. While some politicians have labeled the situation as a pressing national security issue, others have used it as a platform to advocate for immigration reform. However, neither argument offers long-term solutions because they do not mitigate the structural problems in Central America that are causing this mass immigration. Washington must treat the state of affairs in Central America as a humanitarian crisis and provide sufficient relief in order to proactively avert the regional violence that propels the surge of Latino children towards our borders.
Let us first examine the factors that prompt individuals to abandon their countries of origin to seek residence in another nation. The two primary elements to consider are referred to as the push and pull factors: those that drive immigrants to vacate their homes, and those that entice them to reside elsewhere. The United States undoubtedly attracts immigrants because of our country’s higher standard of living and the allure of the American Dream, but for the child refugees from these Latin American countries, the push factors are much more prominent.
Central America is infested with criminal activity, and the majority of the violent crime in the region stems from the lucrative drug trafficking industry, which transports illegal substances from South America to consumers in the United States. Two gangs, MS-13 and M-18, are the primary perpetrators of such violence. Both organizations originated in Los Angeles, but have since expanded dramatically to become transnational crime networks that effectively dominate much of Central America. According to a study conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 2,600 of the children who crossed the border this past year had originally come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the focal point of gang violence in the region. Known as the “Murder Capital of the World,” San Pedro Sula boasts a murder rate of approximately 170 per 100,000 residents, the highest in the world outside of active war zones. To add some perspective, the murder rate in the United States rests at 4.7 per 100,000 residents, considered remarkably high for a post-industrialized country.
In a report conducted by the U.N. Refugee Agency titled Children on the Run, hundreds of teenagers who had been apprehended at the border were interviewed. The majority of responses indicated that pervasive violence in Central America had pushed the children to flee their home countries. One seventeen-year-old boy from Honduras described the atmosphere: “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.” The dangerous trip to the United States is the lesser of two evils: children can either stay home, immersed in constant fear, or travel thousands of unforgiving miles in search of refuge.
It is true that the large influx of undocumented minors ensures real complications for the United States, and as such, the crisis must be addressed in a meaningful, long-term way. However, the emphasis that Congress has placed on immigration reform and national security has bred policies that are unsustainable. In 2008, President Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which specified that children who entered the United States illegally from Central America would not be deported immediately, but instead would appear at an immigration hearing to determine the extenuating circumstances of their arrival. As a result, tens of thousands of children are draining federal and state resources at detention sites, awaiting the slow but inevitable process of deportation. The Department of Homeland Security requested approximately $1.8 billion to cover the costs of these detention centers in 2014 alone. In comparison, the United States appropriated just $350 million in 2013 for foreign aid to the seven Central American countries. This shows that the current administration is far more concerned with addressing the destabilizing effects of immigration on our home soil than examining the causes and proactively taking action against the source of such mass emigration.
It is clear that the appalling conditions in Central America are infringing upon the welfare of a vast number of children in the region, thus pushing them towards the United States. If we were to launch an extensive campaign to assist Latin American countries in controlling the spread of gang violence while providing further humanitarian assistance to the region directly through USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development), we could reduce the financial strain that illegal immigration crises cause while simultaneously improving the lives of thousands of children. Though it is entirely necessary to allocate adequate funding to provide suitable living conditions for the thousands of children still awaiting deportation, it is far more important in the long run to consider the real humanitarian crisis that has instigated such mass migration. The best way to secure our borders in the future is not to increase funding to the Border Patrol or to continue reinforcing physical boundaries along our southern border; rather, we must focus our attention towards Central America in order to address the local violence that consistently pushes children to seek refuge in the United States.
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