Contextualizing the Child Migrant Crisis

Following is the text of an invited talk I gave at a vigil sponsored by Virginia Organizing.

I’ve been asked to speak today to provide context for the humanitarian crisis that we are facing, to explain why so many young people are showing up at our borders.

Before I do that, however, let me start by identifying some things that have not caused this crisis.

You’ve probably heard a number of pundits, politicians, and reporters blaming the Obama administration, saying that these young people are coming to the United States because our country is too soft, that we treat undocumented people too well.

The problem with this argument is that it does not match the evidence in any way, shape, or form. Since Obama took office in 2008, annual removals have increased dramatically. While Bush deported 2 million people over his 8 years in office, it has taken Obama only 5 years to do the same. In fact, since the start of the Great Recession, the number of removals has increased, even as the total number of undocumented residents has declined. If things continue at this rate, Obama will preside over more than 3 million removals before he leaves office.

As bad as this is, the rate of removal says nothing about the various federal, state, and local policies that make life exceedingly difficult for undocumented people. On a typical day, about 30,000 immigrants are living in an immigration detention facility, apart from their families, and millions more worry about whether their undocumented family or friends will make it home that night, or whether they will be stopped by police on the way home from work or the grocery store.

Our country is anything but soft on undocumented immigrants. But there is another argument floating around that says that these young people are coming to the United States because of the perception that they will be granted citizenship, or at least will be allowed to remain in the US indefinitely or for an extended period of time.

In fact, evidence indicates that young people are not running to the United States for citizenship, but are instead running away from poverty, violence, and instability in their home countries.

Common sense tells us that people don’t simply abandon their homes on the off chance that they might be allowed to remain in another country for a few years. People do not undergo a dangerous journey – crossing two thousand miles and a desert, risking physical and sexual assault, even death – unless they are running away from something far worse.

And while the risk of death due to heat stroke is a possibility for anyone who crosses the desert border region of the United States, some in Central America fear that they are far more likely to die if they remain in their home countries than if they risk the dangerous journey to the United States.

People weigh their risks, and act accordingly.

The majority of the children who are fleeing are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and these three countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world, higher than any other region outside of war zones. Children perceive that their communities are unsafe at best, and deadly at worst. They have witnessed or directly experienced gang violence and intimidation. They also know that local police are either unable to resolve the violence, or are directly participating in the violence, either as representatives of gangs and drug cartels or as state-sponsored militarized security forces.

At the same time, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are among the poorest countries in the hemisphere. In Honduras, 43 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, and another 24 percent lives in poverty.   Many Hondurans find that they have few opportunities for economic stability, and their options may range between joining a gang and migrating to the United States.

As we consider the real factors behind this humanitarian crisis—violence and poverty—we should not underestimate the role of the United States in creating the conditions that have forced many children to flee their countries of origin. In fact, several of the gangs that are wreaking havoc right now in El Salvador and Honduras originated in the United States and were exported to Central America, where persistent economic stagnation has enabled them to thrive. Neoliberal trade policies championed by the United States, like the Central American Free Trade Agreement, have exacerbated economic inequalities and contributed to extreme levels of unemployment and poverty. Finally, the United States has a long history of indirect military interference in Central America, especially when leftist politics in those countries threatens our trade expansion, and this interference has supported state-sponsored violence against the people of Central America.

The United States is not singularly responsible for this crisis, but we have played our role in contributing to the violence and poverty that has caused so many children to flee their home countries. We will not resolve this crisis by increasing border enforcement or deporting these children.

So as we work to discover a solution to this humanitarian crisis, let us try to remember that these children are not a flood, not a plague, not an invasion, as some have referred to them, but actual human beings, deserving of dignity, respect, and fair treatment. And let us also remember that they are here, at least in part, because of the roles that our policies have played in forcing them to leave their countries of origin.

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