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

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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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