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Putting the children’s migration in context

Beatriz Manz, professor emeritus of geography and ethnic studies | July 11, 2014

The dramatic surge in the number of Central American children and teenagers entering the US has created considerable concern among many in the United States. Already this year, 52,000 children have been apprehended. The latest estimates indicate that almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors — overwhelmingly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — will be picked-up by the US Border Patrol through this fiscal year ending in September 2014, almost double last year’s total.

For many of us who have conducted research in Central America, this surge is hardly surprising. What is troubling, however, is that the debate over what the US should do with these children has centered on how to deport them as rapidly as possible. The naive notion is that deportation will send an unmistakable message not to attempt the dangerous journey north.

The first question we ought to be asking is: how do we aid these traumatized, troubled young people? Much of the intense, politicized outcry over these developments ignores the fact that, at its core, our immediate treatment of these migrants is a serious human rights question and a critical humanitarian issue. The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 60 percent of the children who have fled to the US qualify for international support, including asylum, and this estimate could prove low.

As Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin put it, “let’s take care that we don’t send them back into a deadly situation.”  Our decent treatment of these children reflects our core values as a nation and is simply the right thing to do.

The second question we should ask is: why are these children fleeing now? These kids are crossing the border to escape escalating, uncontrollable violence; grinding poverty; and a devastating, perhaps lethal future. In this maelstrom the United States is not a detached, innocent bystander. For decades, U.S. governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism—often defined as virtually any reformer—gave these regimes a blank check. The result is a legacy of dealing with your opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional.

After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 percent for Guatemala, 36 percent for El Salvador,and 60 percent for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix.

In 2008, I was commissioned by the UNHCR to write a report on violence in Central America.The report concluded that “the new gang-related violence can be attributed to several factors including decades of internal wars and impunity, extensive displacement to urban areas, the absence of social and economic programs to integrate the youth, the migration to the United States, and the overall social exclusion of a large proportion of the population.”  We should not make children pay the price for the intolerable social destruction that Central American elites and militaries, as well as successive US governments, had a hand in creating.

Critics charge that President Obama’s immigration policy is at fault today for providing an illusion that if children arrive here they will be allowed to stay. False rumors no doubt contribute to the flow but not significantly. These rumors serve multiple useful purposes, especially to those wanting to maintain the status quo . In a recent UNHCR survey of 400 child migrants only a single child mentioned new US immigration policies as the reason he came.

A number of Republican Senators would like to repeal or at least drastically alter a President George W. Bush-era law that mandated stronger legal rights for child migrants from countries that don’t share a physical border with the United States. Instead, critics propose treating children fleeing the three Central American countries the way children coming from Mexico or Canada are treated: that is, making it far easier to deport them.

What’s wrong with this idea? As a start, Honduras is very different from Mexico let alone Canada. We should remember that in the 1960s, when there was concern over persecution in Cuba, the US encouraged and organized the Peter Pan program that brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. In 1980, over 125,000 Cubans fled that country for the US in a matter of months. Hundreds of small boats from Florida went to the Cuban port of Mariel to pick up those wishing to flee. The US Coast Guard helped insure a safe journey.

What happened to the Peter Pan and Mariel immigrants? They were integrated into existing communities and reunited with family members, the goal of all immigrants. Central Americans are not only contributing to the US economy today but sent $13 billion in remittances to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2013.

The most critical question is: what should the US do now? There are clearly no easy or quick answers, but we need a far more realistic focus. Increasing the border patrol is not going to solve the problem; spending billions on drug interdiction in Central America will not solve the problem.  As a start, we need to do two things: first, insure that the rights of the children fleeing to this country are fully respected and that they are treated humanely. This approach would be in the finest traditions of the US and live up to the values we prize.

Second, a long-term Central American-style Marshall Plan is essential to address the structural,economic, and social problems these countries face. And, even then, we must realize that it will take decades to insure strong, sustainable development. Only when young people see a future for themselves in their home countries will the migrations be held in check. Ironically, while this program would involve considerable resources, it could prove by far the most cost-effective approach.

And, in the meantime, we would honor the inspiring words that grace the Statue of Liberty.

Comments to “Putting the children’s migration in context

  1. I think that unaccompanied immigrant children are a complex challenge we cannot overlook. Insisting that the country should never lose focus on humanity. Frequently child migrants are the dream weavers among us and we should not shatter their dreams but we should help them realise these dreams and allow them to be children. Our responsibility is to ensure that children enjoy life … we should not kill their hopes but we should commit ourselves to provide care and protection and ensure that their dreams, hopes and desires come true.

    When children and youth arrive, they feel disorientated and confused and we must be more cultural sensitive. No matter what they go through to survive, they remain children. We know that they possibly were exposed to abuse and suffering and my hope is to have a country which gives new hope to migrant children.

  2. An excellent and very complete article of the sources of the tragic problem of thousand of migrant children detained at the border. Unfortunately, no solution is seeing in the near future, with the present Congress and the antagonism toward all policies initiated by Obama.

  3. Thank you, Professor Manz. I have heard similar reports on NPR and I am hoping for a more compassionate approach to dealing with these young refugees. Sharing this on the social network!

  4. Guatemala borders Mexico–Mexico has a border problem that it is transporting to the US. The people of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras no estan incompetente! They are capable of solving their own problems. Perhaps Mexico can help them without sending them to the US?

  5. Hi Prof. Manz: I totally agree with you and also with Ms. Venter. I came to this country 25 years ago from Central America. I learned first hand how difficult is to live as those kids are living here in the USA and also in their countries of origin.

    Ms. Venter, I think that if the USA had not forgotten those countries this could not been happening. The USA have learned from the past and is learning right now that when you intervene in a conflict…it is important to finish the job….the USA did not finish its job in Central America. As they did not finish their job in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and they are learning from their mistakes.

    Prof. Manz, a Central America Marshall’s plan would be ideal….but as we know that will never happen. Ms. Venter, it is time to start finding common grounds on how to help this kids. They are innocent, as your 17 years old son, they will also work. They will not live in welfare, they will live life and learn from their past generations.

    Ms. Venter, like you, me and my family have not taken a vacation in 5 years, my 17 years old son and my 15 years old daughter work. I wish for politicians and common citizens find a common ground to help these kids.

  6. Bravo, Beatriz Manz, for your excellent summation of our nation’s contradictory policies of supporting and fermenting civil wars in Central America (and elsewhere) that leave behind ordinary families and whole communities shattered and in the aftermath caught in the grips of neoliberal, transnational drug cartels and drug wars.

    Who knows, really, how and why these children have come to us? Some may have been trafficked. Some may be runaways. Some may have been given up because their parents have no other way of protecting them.

    Think of the children of the Holocaust who were sent away to live in attics and barns in Poland. Think of the children in the UK who were sent to live among strangers in the countryside during the shelling of London. But until these children of invisible wars can trust anyone, we will never know their stories.

    The United States is not a child-centered society. We barely love “our own” children enough to support public schools, let alone to care about children from elsewhere, despite the role our nation has played in bringing them to our shores.

  7. Thank you Prof. Manz for this background info and your humane perspective. Immigration reform is a complicated issue that the leaders in DC have put off for too long. But this crisis is right upon us and we can’t wait for them to do the right thing.

    It always amazes me how much compassionate outpouring there is for stranded, abused animals (especially dogs and cats) and rightfully so. Then when we see human beings suffering, particularly people of color, the politics enter the discussion and “those” people are “given” everything. What value do we put on human life that we want to shut out children fleeing from oppressive, dangerous and hopeless environments.

    Yes, we need to restore the strength of the middle class and we need to do what is humane.

  8. I find it very difficult to have compassion for these children at armies when American families are struggling with food, rent, medical and the basics of life. The whole middle class has become the slaves of the world, working and supporting every country in the Global picture.

    My son is in middle school. On Career Day they had guest speakers come to the school. One of the speakers told my sons class America will become a third world country in 10 years. Our rent is $1,500.00 a month for a two bedroom condominium. Now, with Obamacare, our medical bills are $1000.00 a month. My husband works 6 days a week. I am 66 and have 3 jobs. My son is 17 and is working every day during the summer without a car. We have not had a family vacation in over 5 years. We have to work now to pay for medical every month, so how can we take a vacation? How will we be able to pay our bills if we stop working?

    You want to “give” these people everything we struggle for every day of our lives. Like it’s a free Disneyland. American families are suffering and all you people talk about is helping the poor immigrants. Our children are getting sick in the schools with TB, Mesa, and other communicable diseases.

    Please stop bringing unhealthy, uneducated and homeless people into our country. Many families are on the verge of collapse.

    • Dear Connie,

      I am sorry to hear that you feel let down by our nation, but opportunity is the hallmark of our country and the immigrants coming from Central America deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that our fore-bearers received as they settled in Northern America. After all, as Professor Beatriz Manz so brilliantly highlighted, the economic crisis is Central America is a direct result of our military and self-serving multinational corporate actions throughout the last sixty years.

      I’m not sure why a guest speaker in your child’s middle school classroom would declare that we are destined to become a third world nation in the next decade, unless that person was referring to the Wall Street mortgage crisis that has wiped out many middle income families. Hopefully, that discussion opened conversation between you and your son as to the growing inequality gap which does threaten the 99% of which I am also a part of.

      Lastly, I have been researching the rise in numbers of unaccompanied minors migrating to the U.S. for the last two years and I am personally offended that you, as well as the popular media, is painting a picture of these migrants as diseased, ignorant people invading our land. You might want to check the rhetoric. It is the same picture Hitler painted of the Jews during the Holocaust.

      If you truly want a vacation, I urge you to sublet your home, cancel your cable and your cell phone and hop on a plane to Guatemala. Try living on less than $3/day and educating your child beyond 6th grade. You may find that you are truly blessed to be living in the United States of America, land of the free, and with liberty and justice for all.

    • Connie, Selfishness is evident when you start your letter with I. It is very difficult for a majority of Americans to sympathize with someone who has a hard time feeling compassion for children, thank goodness.

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