Home / General / U.S. Responsibility for the Central American Child Immigrant Wave

U.S. Responsibility for the Central American Child Immigrant Wave


The reasons for the wave of child immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are complex, but as Óscar Martínez correctly states, many of them are related to the United States:

As thousands of children like Auner, Chele and Pitbull arrive at the US border, it is important to remember the role the United States has played in creating this mass migration. In the 1970s and ’80s, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were in the midst of either bloody civil wars or fierce government repression in which the United States played an iron-fisted role. Fearing the spread of communism in Latin America, the United States supported the autocratic military governments of these three countries, which in turn generated thousands of northbound migrants. Some of these migrants went on to join gangs in California. The 18th Street Gang and the Mara Salvatrucha were not formed in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala but in the United States. Some fifty years ago, the 18th Street Gang splintered off from Clanton 14 in Southern California. The Mara Salvatrucha formed in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. At the end of the ’80s and the start of the ’90s, the United States deported close to 4,000 gang members. When they arrived back in Central America, they found fertile conditions in which to increase their numbers: countries devastated by war and poverty, with thousands upon thousands of corruptible and abandoned children.

But it would be an oversimplification to say that the flight of children to the United States is the product of violence alone.

Rubén Zamora is currently the Salvadoran ambassador to the UN and, until a month ago, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States. With his replacement awaiting confirmation by the Salvadoran Senate, Zamora has been left to address the international implications of the child migrant crisis. Zamora explains that there is no single cause of the surge in child migrants. In addition to gang activity, Zamora says that the improving economic conditions experienced by Salvadoran migrants to the United States have acted as a draw. “From sharing a single room with a group of people, now some migrants can pay $1,000 a month and rent a two-bedroom apartment for themselves in the suburbs,” he says. And that means “more people can pay to bring their children to the US.”

Thousands of migrants from Central America are ineligible for temporary protected status—not because they’ve violated any law but because they missed the cutoff dates. The United States offers a mere 5,000 visas for low-skilled workers every year. For many, the only chance for gaining legal status in the United States is the asylum process, and it’s a long shot. Over the last few decades, in part as a response to the wave of Central American migrants fleeing the civil wars, the United States has narrowed the definition of who qualifies for asylum. Because most of those fleeing Central America are not doing so because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” they are ineligible.

I recently asked two immigration lawyers from California and North Carolina how many requests for asylum they file each week. “At least ten,” they said. They’ve lost track of how many migrants they’ve represented over the years. But the tally of those who have been successful is easy to remember: none.

“Parents don’t see any chance of bringing their children legally to the US,” Zamora says, “so what options are left for them?”

Martínez is also correct on the point that the kids are not going to stop coming. There really is nothing the U.S. can do to stop this wave. It can make lives worse for the children fleeing violence to be reunited with their parents. It can militarize the border to all get-out. It can have coyotes extradited to the U.S. The kids are still going to come until a) gang violence ends in Central America and b) there is no reason for Central Americans to migrate to the U.S. without documentation.

And it’s worth reiterating the long-term damage U.S. Cold War policy had in poor nations around the world. The actions of Dulles and Eisenhower and Reagan and North destabilized these nations, creating conditions that continue to blowback to the U.S. today.

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  • Stan Gable

    In the 1970s and ’80s, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were in the midst of either bloody civil wars or fierce government repression in which the United States played an iron-fisted role.

    Could probably be rewritten to say in the 1870s and 80s and remain just as accurate.

    • U.S. wasn’t so involved there until about 1900.

      • Stan Gable

        Yeah, you’re right. The UFC wasn’t formed until the turn of the century but it’s still weird to see this stuff attributed to actions in the 1980s.

  • waspuppet

    Martínez is also correct on the point that the kids are not going to stop coming. There really is nothing the U.S. can do to stop this wave. It can make lives worse for the children fleeing violence to be reunited with their parents. It can militarize the border to all get-out. It can have coyotes extradited to the U.S. The kids are still going to come until a) gang violence ends in Central America and b) there is no reason for Central Americans to migrate to the U.S. without documentation.

    To be fair, Republicans are doing their part to bring about the one other thing that will stop the wave: Making the U.S. no more of an attractive place to live than El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

    P.S.: My randomly generated password for the LGM commenting system includes both “snot” and “BJ.” “Randomly generated” my tuchus.

  • Manny Kant

    One of the kids goes by Pitbull? I blame Pitbull for this.

    • Gwen

      “Some day I too will grow up and get to ruin perfectly good pop songs!”

    • DrS

      I love Pitbull. He’s the hardest working 57 year old pop singer we have.

  • LeeEsq

    The modern asylum process roughly dates from 1980 when Congress passed legislation to combine the previous hodgepodge of practices into one standard practice. The idea that asylum should be based on race, nationality, political opinion, religion, or membership in a particular social groups comes from the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Refugees. Before that asylum was more or less based on American foreign policy. If you were from a Communist country, getting refugee status was relatively easy. If not, nearly impossible. The current practice makes granting asylum more immune to American foreign policy. Many Chinese, Egyptians, Pakistanti, and Indian immigrants get asylum every year even though we are officially on at least decent terms with those countries. LGBT people from the Carribean or Latin America are granted asylum fairly frequently as well.

    Asylum law doesn’t necessarily require that persecution comes from the government. It recognizes that non-government actors are capable of persecution but it requires that alien filing for asylum prove that the government is unwilling or unable to control the non-government persecutors. This is often difficult to establish. Christians from Indonesia or Malaysia usually have their asylum cases denied because of this. The Central American situation is similar but worse because its hard to pigeon hole gang violence into one of the enumerated grounds but lawyers usually try membership of the particular social group. The Central America migrant kids might also apply for protection under the Convention Against Torture, which doesn’t require the claim to fall under one of the protective grounds but doesn’t lead to Permanent Residence like asylum does and has a higher burden of proof than asylum.

    The best bet for many the Central American migrants is if they have somebody who could become their guardian. This would allow them to apply for a Special Juvenile visa, a visa for children that have been constructively abandoned by their parents by sending them to the United States and self-petition for permanent residence. It would require first a guardianship proceeding in a family court and the judge must decide that it is not in the child’s best interests to be sent back to their country of nationality. Than the child would file an I-360 and I-485 with USCIS and hopefully get a green card.

  • donaldmillner

    I’m not sure that sovietizing South America would have been a better outcome than what we got.

    • L2P

      Oh C’mon. Everybody knows Soviet pancakes are the best.

    • wjts

      Yes, thank God El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras aren’t in the same mess as Nicaragua.

      • Gregor Sansa

        And thank God that the Honduran coup of 2009 protected the country from Stalin.

        • wjts

          Gregor, I want to buy your rock coup.

    • Gregor Sansa

      South America? Who’s talking about South America?

      • DrDick

        Considering the source, that is pretty damned close.

      • ExpatJK

        Donald, as his grasp of geography is as bad as his grasp of some other issues, apparently.

    • Alvin Alpaca

      Oh yes, compare what happened to the workers at Gdansk shipyard with say, Catholic Nuns in El Salvador who disagreed with the ruling junta.

      Of course, your St. Ronnie said they had it comin’ so it’s all good.

      • joe from Lowell

        God bless Joe Moakley.

        Current U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester was his chief of staff, and was highly active in Joe’s efforts to oppose Reagan’s policies in Central America.

    • runsinbackground

      I dunno, how many boatloads of Venezuelan refugees have you seen lately? Sure, Chavez was a caudillo, but he campaigned for the rights of indigenous groups, achieved the second-highest level of poverty reduction in Latin America over the course of his presidency, and never committed any massacres that I can recall. Compared to the same period in El Salvador that looks pretty damn good.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Venezuela is in shambles right now. Yes, that’s partly the fault of the economic sabotage of the rich, but there’s plenty of blame left for the post-Chavez government. I think you’d find better examples in Nicaragua or, for that matter, Costa Rica, which only avoided a Dulles-sponsored “anticommunist” coup in the 1950s because there was no army to stage one.

      • joe from Lowell

        Wait a sec – we’re talking about El Salvador in the 1980s. Chavez didn’t get elected until 1999. Heck, the coup he attempted didn’t happen until 1992.

    • wengler

      Sure it would’ve. If Latin America would’ve been ‘Sovietized’ rightwingers like you would welcome these children as political refugees.

    • joe from Lowell

      Why did those anti-plantationist uprisings become Sovietized? Why weren’t they democratic uprisings, full of propaganda quoting Jefferson (like Ho Chi Minh used to?)

      Is there something inherent in opposing an outdated agricultural oligarchy that requires a commitment to the Moscow line?

      Or did we hand those movements to the Soviets on a silver platter by going all-in for the oligarchs, when we knew there was a “pro-worker,” revolution-supporting superpower eager to stick a finger in our eye?

  • Gwen

    The U.S. is the 400 pound gorilla in this hemisphere, of course it’s somehow our responsibility.

    Other countries dance when we say dance. When we say jump, other countries ask, “how high?”

    Except for Cuba, because they are Cuba.

  • LeeEsq

    The Monroe Doctrine combined with the political logic of the Cold War guaranteed that this mess would happen. There was no way that the United States would willingly let any state in the Americas go Communist even if that meant supporting a military dictatorship instead. The Americas were seen as our home turf. This makes the entire current Central America migrate wave seem very pre-determined.

    The War on Drugs exasperates the issues because selling illegal drugs is the main source of revenue for many of the gangs plaguing Central America.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Note that the Dulles brothers’ definition of “communist” included FDR.

    • cpinva

      “The War on Drugs exasperates the issues because selling illegal drugs is the main source of revenue for many of the gangs plaguing Central America.”

      I wondered when someone was going to raise this issue. the gangs are bad enough by themselves, but when combined with the illicit drug trade, and the money involved in it, they become exponentially worse. if they were my children, I’d probably do the same thing as those central American parents are doing, send them to a place that at least appears to be a lot safer.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Legalizing drugs would starve the cartels, and so northern Mexico and Colombia would be a lot better off. But I don’t actually think it would make such a big difference in Central America. Local gangs would still control the street trade in drugs, and they’d still use drugs as a recruiting tool/murder aid. They’d still get most of their profits from extortion and murder.

        Perez Molina in Guatemala is a genocidal war-criminal of international stature. And… he’s suggested legalizing drugs, for which, credit where credit is due, he’s right. But I think he made that proposal more because the base of the main opposition party is in the cartel-controlled north and east of Guatemala, not the more-populous gang-ridden capital and south or the (slightly less gang-ridden, but open-pit-cyanide-laced) western highland indigenous regions.

        • Legalizing drugs would hurt the cartels, but it would not starve them. They’ve moved into all sorts of things–kidnapping, avocado and lime farms, beef, etc.

          • Also the illegal forestry and wildlife trades.

            • Stan Gable

              Next up, mergers & acquisitions and leveraged buyouts!

          • Gregor Sansa

            OK, fair enough. The cartels would be affected but not “starved”. But the street gangs that are driving people out of Central America (along with regular, everyday poverty) would hardly even notice.

            How can you fight the street gangs? You need a functioning justice system. And that’s where the war (and US responsibility therefore) becomes especially relevant. In Guatemala at least, there are a number of powerful war criminals, including the current president, who don’t want the justice system to function, at least in regards to their crimes. It is in theory possible that the justice system might function well against current street crime but not against decades-old war crimes, but in practice, the kind of capable attorney general who would do one thing would do the other, and the kind of corrupt attorney general who would shield their buddies would appoint bribable underlings. That’s why capable Claudia Paz y Paz (yes, that’s really her name) was forced out, and replaced with corrupt Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernandez.

            This is the kind of internal Guatemalan politics that the US Democratic party turns their nose up at, sniffing “both sides do it”, while the US Republican party, división Miami-Gitmo-Caracas (think Otto Reich and Ted Cruz), happily supports the bad guys.

            • Yeah, there are no easy answers here at all.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Easy answer: repeal Yeats. (You know, the thing about the best lacking all conviction.)

                • Hogan

                  Unfortunately that requires amendments to the Oxford Book of English Verse and the Norton Anthology.

    • Brett

      To be fair, the Soviet Union wasn’t lining up to let any of the eastern European countries it rolled over in World War II the right to democratic self-determination either.

      Still pretty bad, though, in the case of the US. The shittiest one was Guatemala and Arbenz in the 1950s. Not only did the US start a process of fucking over Guatemala repeatedly in civil wars, setting a premier example of how it was going to act in other Latin American coup attempts, but it undermined an invaluable way of development through land reform and development – the same type of land reform that the US supported in Japan and South Korea post-war, and which we didn’t oppose when it happened in Mexico under Cardenas (of course, that was when FDR was in power).

  • Gregor Sansa

    I posted something on the last thread on this, but it was late, so I’ll try to repeat the points here.

    First, the “70s and 80s” thing is kinda bizarre. The US-sponsored coup in Guatemala was in 1954; the Dulles brothers saw the president’s new-deal inspired policies as communist interference, and overthrew the government as soon as Eisenhower was in office to let them, even though by that time Arbenz had only about a year left on his term limit.

    Yes, the 80s were the worst time for genocide in Guatemala, urban warfare in El Salvador, and probably Contra bases in Honduras. But there was genocide in El Salvador in 1932, and the US wasn’t even very involved in that.

    But OK, I understand, you want to tell a simple story, and the 80s is a good place to start.

    Kudos on including the US origins of the MS13 and similar gangs. Note that this kind of gang is mostly based on street territory, not international drug transport. Sure, they’ll sell you drugs, but they’ll also run extorsion on businesses, bus lines, and residents in their territory.

    I’d also mention that in Guatemala, at least, president Perez Molina ran a 6-year campaign of “mano dura” (firm hand; that is, anti-crime) and plenty of people believe that his party was actually encouraging lawlessness so that they would be elected to solve it. (Also, if you want to see 80s footage of a Perez Molina underling with a boot on a corpse explaining why Perez Molina had just tortured the guy to death, that’s on YouTube.)

    • ExpatJK

      RE MS13 and others, I had heard that they have a substantial role in international people smuggling eg coyote type stuff – is this incorrect?

      • Gregor Sansa

        Yes, they do. But the street-level gang member who people are fleeing probably gets more money from extortion than from drugs and human trafficking combined. We’re not talking about the Sinaloa cartel.

        • ExpatJK

          Fair point, thanks for this.

      • DrDick

        They are into almost anything illegal they can make a buck off of to some extent, but otherwise, what Gregor Sansa said..

  • j_kay

    Clinton brought back Our evil Empire. Puerto Rico got back business taxes without representation; its economy, of course, still hasn’t recovered.

    Clearly our neocons, Reagan, and Shrub wanted more evil empire, but were too amazingly too over the top stupid. Reagan wanted El Salvador, why he supported the Contras as puppets, and Shrub clearly wanted Iraq.

    Truman mostly deimperialized, rightly, for it’s evil oppression.

    Latin America’s on an enviable democratic, progressive kick, except for Worst 800-lb Elephant up North. After all, Mexico finally has an opposition party, and their economies are only only starting to falter, unlike our and Europe’s radically killed econs, and our worst shark Wall Street is the trouble they face.

    • joe from Lowell

      Puerto Rico got back business taxes without representation

      So what? Businesses aren’t supposed to have representation. Corporations aren’t people, my friend.

      Why should the United States run its own off-shore tax haven?

  • j_kay

    Oh, and I’m too lazy to link, but DeLong had a critical link about NAFTA yesterday. He’d earlier flipped to negative on the deal himself looking at the evidence himself of how it went.

  • Gregor Sansa

    The actions of Dulles and Eisenhower and Reagan and North

    Which Dulles are you talking about? Both favored the Guatemalan coup (as well as, successfully or unsuccessfully, trying to undermine governments in Iran, Indonesia, Congo, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cuba, and Costa Rica… an impressive litany of disaster from today’s perspective). Both were held in check by Truman and then let slip by Eisenhower. Allen at CIA, with his snooty restless interventionism, is the obvious answer, but dour paranoid zealot Foster at State should get plenty of blame himself.

    • Hogan

      The Dulles family owned a lot of stock in United Fruit. I think for these purposes we can treat John Foster and Allen as a closely held corporation.

      • Eleanor Dulles

        I’m actually glad (for a change) you left me out (as always).

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