By Libby Leyden-Sussler
The United States stands on the teetering edge of a major humanitarian crisis. In an unprecedented surge, more than 57,000 young unaccompanied migrants, mostly from Central America, have been arrested at the southwest border since October 2013. More than half of the top 50 Central American cities from which they are leaving for the United States are in Honduras. The Obama administration can and should take steps towards changing the conversation in Congress to focus less on illegal immigration reform and more towards providing relief for these refugees seeking asylum.
“San Pedro Sula in Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with a homicide rate of 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 driven by a surge in gang and drug trafficking violence,” says Victor D. Nieblas Pradis, President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “El Salvador ranks #4 and Guatemala #5. The fear of death is predominantly what is causing the exodus of these children.”
In the 1990s, gangs such as the 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha arrived in force in Honduras because they were being deported in large numbers from Los Angeles to Central America. As the United States and Colombia spent billions of dollars to disrupt the movement of drugs up the Caribbean corridor, traffickers rerouted inland through Honduras; 79 percent of cocaine-smuggling flights bound for the U.S. now pass through there. The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Gangs are targeting children as young as two and three years old for recruitment by extortion through schools and local communities. These factors have all contributed to making Honduras a conflict zone that is twice as dangerous as Iraq was from 2008 to 2012.
The question of what to do with this influx of migrants has been causing widespread debate. Immigration reform has become a controversial and pressing issue among Americans since Barack Obama took office in 2008.
The Obama administration projects that more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 could next year flee Central America to enter the United States. The Obama administration’s way of handling this impending influx is to tighten border control and to speed up deportations. President Obama has asked lawmakers for $3.7 billion to pay for more border security, temporary detention centers, and additional immigration court judges to process asylum cases and speed up deportations.
These measures, however, would allow Homeland Security to largely decide the fate of these children. Minors questioned immediately or shortly after they are caught are often hesitant to disclose the dangers they face at home. They are disoriented, wary of strangers, and are usually traumatized. The U.S. needs to enhance how the screenings are conducted because many of these migrants qualify for refugee status, which would guarantee them asylum.
The U.S. has to take some of the blame for the culture of violence in Central America. “A moral and legal responsibility exists. The U.S. has after all played a major role in the conditions of these Central American countries,” says Pradis. Addressing the full situation, including potential responsibility, is the only way the U.S. and Central American countries can move forward in quelling violence.
“The United States’ involvement in these civil wars is no secret. Thousands of people were displaced and many came to the United States. Children who suffered immense psychological damage grew up in the inner city and were exposed to what many have described as U.S. gang culture. In 2006, ICE’s “Operation Return to Sender” arrested and removed thousands of gang members repatriating them to their Central American homelands. The result was that the unique American gang culture infested the Central American countries,” Pradis explains.
Honduras now stands on the brink of becoming a failed state if action is not taken soon. Rather than focusing on increased deportation, the U.S. should work to create emergency refugee centers (under operation by the UN and other relief groups) where these children can be held for a certain length of stay instead of being sent directly home. Kids In Need of Defense estimates that 40 percent to 60 percent of these children could qualify to stay under current immigration laws.
Another crucial issue is the delay in passing any concrete legislation. “There is a severe lack of knowledge about the system for child migrants in the U.S.,” says Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar researching child migrants in El Salvador. By stalling on immigration reform, the U.S. emboldens migrants to enter the country.
But where the divide in this debate should come down to is to turn the U.S.’s attention to accepting these children as what they are: refugees. The United States should help these child migrants because it holds some responsibility in creating these poor living conditions in Central America. It should stand as the world’s leader and set a strong example of how to deal with what are, essentially, the world’s children.
Libby Leyden-Sussler is a journalism and political science student at Northeastern University. Follow her at @Libby_Leyden.