Debunking 8 Myths About Why Central American Children Are Migrating

‘Lax enforcement’ is not the culprit—U.S. trade and immigration policies are.

David Bacon July 8, 2014

Immigrants' rights activists have fought for years to stem the tide of deportations, which escalated during President Obama's early years in office. (David Bacon)

The mass migra­tion of chil­dren from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca has been at the cen­ter of a polit­i­cal firestorm over the past few weeks. The main­stream media has run dozens of sto­ries blam­ing fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly moth­ers, for send­ing or bring­ing their chil­dren north. The pres­i­dent him­self has lec­tured them, as though they were sim­ply bad par­ents. Do not send your chil­dren to the bor­ders,” he said in a June 27 inter­view with George Stephanopou­los. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More impor­tant­ly, they may not make it.”

The failure of Central America's economies is largely due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and their accompanying economic changes.

Mean­while, the sto­ry is being manip­u­lat­ed by the Tea Par­ty and con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans to attack Oba­ma’s exec­u­tive action defer­ring the depor­ta­tion of young peo­ple, along with any pos­si­bil­i­ty that he might expand it — the demand of many immi­grant rights advo­cates. More broad­ly, the far Right wants to shut down any immi­gra­tion reform that includes legal­iza­tion, and instead is gun­ning for harsh­er enforce­ment mea­sures. Even Marine Corps Gen. John Kel­ly, com­man­der of U.S. South­ern Com­mand, has sought to frame migra­tion as a nation­al secu­ri­ty threat, call­ing it a crime-ter­ror con­ver­gence,” and describ­ing it as an incred­i­bly effi­cient net­work along which any­thing hun­dreds of tons of drugs, peo­ple, ter­ror­ists, poten­tial­ly weapons of mass destruc­tion or chil­dren — can trav­el, so long as they can pay the fare.”

All of this ignores the real rea­sons fam­i­lies take the des­per­ate mea­sure of leav­ing home and try­ing to cross the bor­der. Media cov­er­age focus­es on gang vio­lence in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, as though it was spon­ta­neous and unre­lat­ed to a his­to­ry of U.S.-promoted wars and a pol­i­cy of mass deportations.

In truth, the Unit­ed States’ med­dling for­eign pol­i­cy and a his­to­ry of the U.S.’s own harsh immi­gra­tion mea­sures are respon­si­ble for much of the pres­sure caus­ing this flow of peo­ple from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. These eight facts, ignored by the main­stream press and the pres­i­dent, doc­u­ment that cul­pa­bil­i­ty and point out the need for change:

1. There is no lax enforce­ment” on the U.S./Mexico bor­der. There are over 20,000 Bor­der Patrol Agents; that num­ber was as low as 9,800 in 2001. We have walls and a sys­tem of large, cen­tral­ized deten­tion cen­ters that did­n’t exist just 15 years ago. Now more than 350,000 peo­ple spend some time in an immi­grant deten­tion cen­ter every year. The U.S. spends more on immi­gra­tion enforce­ment than all oth­er enforce­ment activ­i­ties of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment com­bined, includ­ing the FBI, the Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion and the Bureau of Alco­hol, Tobac­co, Firearms and Explo­sives. The grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple in deten­tion — young peo­ple as well as fam­i­lies and adults— is being used as a pre­text by the anti-immi­grant lob­by in Wash­ing­ton, includ­ing the Tea Par­ty and the Bor­der Patrol itself, for demand­ing increas­es in the bud­get for enforce­ment. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion has giv­en way before this pressure.

2. The migra­tion of chil­dren and fam­i­lies didn’t just start recent­ly. It has been going on for a long time, although the num­bers have recent­ly surged. The tide of migra­tion from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca goes back to wars that the U.S. pro­mot­ed in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, gov­ern­ments or con­tras, who were most opposed to pro­gres­sive social change. Many hun­dreds of thou­sands of Sal­vado­rans came to the U.S. dur­ing the late 1970s and 80s, to say noth­ing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole fam­i­lies migrat­ed, but so did parts of fam­i­lies, leav­ing loved ones behind with the hope that some day they’d be reunited.

3. The recent increase in the num­bers of child migrants is not just a response to gang vio­lence, although this is the most-cit­ed cause in U.S. media cov­er­age. Migra­tion is as much or more a con­se­quence of the increas­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis for rur­al peo­ple in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and Mex­i­co, as well as the fail­ure of those economies to pro­duce jobs. Peo­ple are leav­ing because they can’t sur­vive where they are.

4. The fail­ure of Cen­tral Amer­i­ca’s economies is large­ly due to the North Amer­i­can and Cen­tral Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ments and their accom­pa­ny­ing eco­nom­ic changes, includ­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion of busi­ness­es, the dis­place­ment of com­mu­ni­ties by for­eign min­ing projects and cuts in the social bud­get. The treaties allowed huge U.S. cor­po­ra­tions to dump corn and oth­er agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts in Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, forc­ing rur­al fam­i­lies off their lands when they could not compete.

5. When gov­ern­ments or peo­ple have resist­ed NAF­TA and CAF­TA, the Unit­ed States has threat­ened reprisal. Right-wing Con­gress­man Tom Tan­cre­do (R‑Colo.) put for­ward a mea­sure to cut off the flow of remit­tances (mon­ey sent back to Sal­vado­ran fam­i­lies from fam­i­ly mem­bers work­ing in the U.S.) if the left­wing par­ty, the FMLN, won the 2004 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. His bill did not pass, but the U.S. Embassy in San Sal­vador admit­ted that it had inter­vened. In 2009, the Hon­duran army over­threw Pres­i­dent Manuel Zelaya after he raised the min­i­mum wage, gave sub­si­dies to small farm­ers, cut inter­est rates and insti­tut­ed free edu­ca­tion. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion gave a de fac­to approval to the coup régime that fol­lowed. If social and polit­i­cal change had tak­en place in Hon­duras, we would see far few­er Hon­durans try­ing to come to the U.S.

6. Gang vio­lence in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca has a U.S. ori­gin. Over the past two decades, young peo­ple from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca have arrived in L.A. and big U.S. cities, where many were recruit­ed into gangs, a sto­ry elo­quent­ly told by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Don­na DeCe­sare in the recent book Unsettled/​Desasociego: Chil­dren in the World of Gangs. The Mara­trucha Sal­vadoreña gang, which today’s news­pa­per sto­ries hold respon­si­ble for the vio­lence dri­ving peo­ple from El Sal­vador, was orga­nized in Los Ange­les, not in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. U.S. law enforce­ment and immi­gra­tion author­i­ties respond­ed to the rise of gang activ­i­ty here with a huge pro­gram of depor­ta­tions. The U.S. has been deport­ing approx­i­mate­ly 400,000 peo­ple per year since 2009.

7. More­over, U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca has active­ly led to the growth of gang vio­lence there. In El Sal­vador, Guatemala and Hon­duras, U.S. law enforce­ment assis­tance pres­sured local law enforce­ment to adopt a mano dura, or hard­line, approach to gang mem­bers, lead­ing to the incar­cer­a­tion of many young peo­ple deport­ed from the U.S. almost as soon as they arrived. Pris­ons became schools for gang recruit­ment. Even in El Sal­vador — where the left­wing FMLN gov­ern­ment at least has a com­mit­ment to a pol­i­cy of jobs and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment to take young peo­ple off the street and to pro­vide an alter­na­tive to migra­tion — con­ser­v­a­tive police and mil­i­tary forces con­tin­ue to sup­port heavy enforce­ment. In Guatemala and Hon­duras, the U.S. is sup­port­ing very rightwing gov­ern­ments that only use a harsh enforce­ment approach. Hyp­o­crit­i­cal­ly, while pun­ish­ing depor­tees and con­demn­ing migra­tion, these two gov­ern­ments actu­al­ly use the migra­tion of peo­ple to the U.S. as a source of remit­tances to keep their economies afloat.

8. Kids look­ing for fam­i­lies here are look­ing for those who were already dis­placed by war and eco­nom­ic cri­sis. The sep­a­ra­tion of fam­i­lies is a cause of much of the cur­rent migra­tion of young peo­ple. Young peo­ple flee­ing the vio­lence are react­ing to the con­se­quences of poli­cies for which the U.S. gov­ern­ment is large­ly respon­si­ble, in the only way open to them.

Two and three years ago we were hear­ing from the Pew His­pan­ic Trust and oth­er sources that migra­tion had lev­eled off.” No one is both­er­ing to claim that any­more. Migra­tion has­n’t stopped because the forces caus­ing it are more pow­er­ful than ever.

More enforce­ment will not deal with the caus­es of the migra­tion from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. In fact, the depor­ta­tion of more peo­ple back to their coun­tries of ori­gin will increase job­less­ness and eco­nom­ic des­per­a­tion — the main fac­tors caus­ing peo­ple to leave. Vio­lence, which feeds on that des­per­a­tion, will increase as well.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has pro­posed rais­ing the enforce­ment bud­get by $3.7 bil­lion to address the recent influx of unac­com­pa­nied Latin Amer­i­can minors. He has called for sus­pend­ing a law passed in 2008 that requires minors to be trans­ferred out of deten­tion to cen­ters where they can locate fam­i­ly mem­bers to care for them, and to instead deport them more rapid­ly. Both ideas will cause more pain, vio­late basic rights and moral prin­ci­ples, and fail com­plete­ly to stop migration.

Yes­ter­day, at the New York Times, Carl Hulse wrote that the law trans­fer­ring minors out of deten­tion cen­ters is at the root of the poten­tial­ly calami­tous flow of unac­com­pa­nied minors to the nation’s south­ern bor­der.” This report and oth­ers like it not only ignore his­to­ry and paint a false pic­ture of the rea­sons for migra­tion, but also pro­vide the ratio­nale for increased enforcement.

Sim­i­lar­ly, New Jer­sey Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Bob Menen­dez has declared we must attack this prob­lem from a for­eign pol­i­cy per­spec­tive, a human­i­tar­i­an per­spec­tive, a crim­i­nal per­spec­tive, immi­gra­tion per­spec­tive, and a nation­al secu­ri­ty per­spec­tive.” He calls for more fund­ing for the U.S. mil­i­tary’s South­ern Com­mand and the State Depart­men­t’s Cen­tral Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty Ini­tia­tive, among oth­er rec­om­men­da­tions. Giv­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to some of the most vio­lent and rightwing mil­i­taries in the West­ern hemi­sphere, how­ev­er, is a step back towards the mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion pol­i­cy that set the wave of migra­tion into motion to begin with.

Instead, we need to help fam­i­lies reunite, treat immi­grants with respect, and change the poli­cies the U.S. has imple­ment­ed in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, Mex­i­co and else­where that have led to mas­sive migra­tion. The two most effec­tive mea­sures would be end­ing the admin­is­tra­tion’s mass deten­tion and depor­ta­tion pro­gram, and end­ing the free trade eco­nom­ic and inter­ven­tion­ist mil­i­tary poli­cies that are caus­ing such des­per­a­tion in the coun­tries these chil­dren and fam­i­lies are fleeing.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH