A Cyclical Crisis: Why Trump’s Crackdown on Central American Migrants Will Only Mean More Violence

Trump’s promises to “decimate” Central American gangs and close the border to child migrants fuel a cycle of transnational brutality.

Laura Weiss October 9, 2017

A portrait of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old shot by a Border Patrol agent, is seen on the U.S.-Mexico border fence on February 16, 2017. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Hemp­stead is a shit­hole full of pandilleros (thieves), just like Tegu­ci­gal­pa.” These words from Manú López, a 17-year old from Hon­duras, describe his expe­ri­ence relo­cat­ing to Hemp­stead, New York from the Hon­duran cap­i­tal of Tegu­ci­gal­pa, after gang mem­bers mur­dered his broth­er. The quote comes from an inter­view with López by Vale­ria Luisel­li, whose book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Ques­tions (Cof­fee House Press, 2017), details her expe­ri­ence as a vol­un­teer inter­preter for Cen­tral Amer­i­can youth seek­ing asylum.

Trump’s vague, hard-fisted rhetoric isn’t just racist, his proposals would make matters worse.

López’s descrip­tion of gang vio­lence in Hemp­stead speaks to a per­verse­ly trag­ic sit­u­a­tion: in some cas­es, indi­vid­u­als like López flee bru­tal­i­ty in their home coun­tries only to face sim­i­lar threats when they arrive in the Unit­ed States.

Pres­i­dent Trump ref­er­enced the threats posed by Cen­tral Amer­i­can gang mem­bers dur­ing a speech in Long Island this July, in which he promised all-out war against the Mara Sal­va­trucha (MS-13) gang, whose mem­bers per­pe­trat­ed 17 mur­ders between Jan­u­ary 2016 and July 2017 in Suf­folk Coun­ty, Long Island. Recent reports also claim that Trump plans to push for a fur­ther crack­down on Cen­tral Amer­i­can migrants as part of an agree­ment offer­ing pro­tec­tion to DACA recip­i­ents who face deportation. 

Rather than offer­ing solu­tions to the sys­temic crises dri­ving gang vio­lence in com­mu­ni­ties like Hemp­stead, Trump’s Long Island speech instead offered inflam­ma­to­ry rhetoric and bald false­hoods. He advo­cat­ed extrale­gal bru­tal­i­ty and repeat­ed­ly referred to gang mem­bers as ani­mals.” The speech inac­cu­rate­ly blamed the influx of Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico bor­der in the sum­mer of 2014 for an unproven rise in gang vio­lence. In fact, indi­vid­u­als like López typ­i­cal­ly fled their home coun­tries for the Unit­ed States in order to avoid gang violence.

Trump’s rhetoric stands in stark con­trast to Luiselli’s approach, which inves­ti­gates the cycli­cal, transna­tion­al and his­tor­i­cal­ly-root­ed nature of this brutality.

The real bor­der crisis

When Luisel­li meets López, he’s miss­ing two front teeth after get­ting beat up by mem­bers of Bar­rio-18, MS-13’s rival, at Hemp­stead High School. MS-13 mem­bers came to his defense. As a result, López is wor­ried he’ll be forced to join MS-13 — one of the rea­sons he left Hon­duras in the first place. It’s sit­u­a­tions like this that have led oth­er chil­dren Luisel­li meets to describe their jour­neys as from Guatemala to Guate­pe­or,” rough­ly trans­lat­ing to, From Guate-bad to Guate-worse.”

The pres­ence of the MS-13 and Bar­rio-18 on Long Island and in Nas­sau Coun­ty, home to the fifth high­est num­ber of unac­com­pa­nied minors in the coun­try, com­pounds an already heart-wrench­ing sit­u­a­tion. Luisel­li, her­self an immi­grant from Mex­i­co, writes, Why did we risk our lives to come to this coun­try? Why did they come when, as if in some cir­cu­lar night­mare, they arrive in new schools… and find there the very things they were run­ning from?”

Luiselli’s account is informed by her expe­ri­ence work­ing as an inter­preter for The Door, a New York-based non­prof­it that offers immi­gra­tion assis­tance to youth. Law firms often part­ner with orga­ni­za­tions such as Luiselli’s to take on immi­gra­tion cases.

These groups strug­gled to keep up with the num­ber of asy­lum appli­ca­tions they received in the wake of the child migrant cri­sis of 2014 — long pre­dat­ing Trump’s pres­i­den­cy. In the sum­mer of 2014, 80,000 unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren, offi­cial­ly referred to as unac­com­pa­nied alien minors, or UAMs, turned them­selves in to Bor­der Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bor­der, seek­ing asy­lum. They were then packed into ice-cold jail cells referred to as hiel­eras” (freez­ers) as they await­ed their court dates, some­times for months.

Luisel­li recounts the con­di­tions these migrants faced in cus­tody — one girl she inter­views says she was unable to eat the frozen sand­wich­es she was served at a deten­tion cen­ter because they gave her bel­ly-sad­ness.” In anoth­er case, the Dil­ley Deten­tion Cen­ter in South Texas improp­er­ly admin­is­tered adult-sized dos­es of the Hepatitis‑A vac­cine to 250 chil­dren, alleged­ly lead­ing to severe ill­ness requir­ing hospitalization.

As Luisel­li explains, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion respond­ed to this cri­sis by mov­ing minors’ names to the pri­or­i­ty depor­ta­tion dock­et, reduc­ing the time these chil­dren would have to build a case for them­selves to stay in the coun­try from 12 months to just 21 days.

An already under-resourced pro-bono immi­grant lawyer net­work quick­ly mobi­lized to rep­re­sent as many cas­es as they could. Span­ish-Eng­lish trans­la­tors, includ­ing Luisel­li, stepped up to help con­duct fear inter­views — a series of ques­tions that help deter­mine if appli­cants have cred­i­ble claims of fac­ing per­se­cu­tion if returned to their home coun­tries. Based on these inter­views, lawyers would take the cas­es they believed had the high­est chances of win­ning. If their answers did­n’t align with what the law con­sid­ers rea­son enough for their right to pro­tec­tion, the only pos­si­ble end­ing to their sto­ry was going to be depor­ta­tion,” Luisel­li writes.

Legal­ly, unlike U.S. cit­i­zens, immi­grants are not pro­vid­ed court-appoint­ed lawyers. Accord­ing to the Trans­ac­tion­al Records Clear­ing­house at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, near­ly half of chil­dren who do have lawyers are allowed to stay in the Unit­ed States, while nine in ten chil­dren with­out legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion receive depor­ta­tion orders.

For his part, Pres­i­dent Trump assert­ed on July 28 that the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion enact­ed an open-door pol­i­cy to ille­gal migrants from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca.” Luiselli’s book — an empa­thet­ic, per­son­al, and right­ful­ly indig­nant account of the asy­lum-seek­ing process — describes how these migrants have faced any­thing but an open door.

A trag­ic sta­tus quo

Over the last two years, MS-13 has mur­dered more than 20 peo­ple on Long Island. In Sep­tem­ber 2016, two teenage girls from Brent­wood, Kay­la Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Micks, 15, were beat­en to death. These deaths may have been what Trump was refer­ring to when he said, They [MS-13] butch­er those lit­tle girls. They kid­nap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on chil­dren. They shouldn’t be here.” What Trump didn’t men­tion is that these gangs tend to tar­get the very Cen­tral Amer­i­can immi­grants that he wants to deport.

And despite inter­na­tion­al laws pro­hibit­ing the depor­ta­tion of peo­ple who face a cred­i­ble threat of per­se­cu­tion in their home coun­try, accord­ing to the Guardian, in 2014 at least 83 peo­ple were deport­ed from the Unit­ed States to sub­se­quent­ly face death in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca. Our legal sys­tem has set forth bar­ri­er after bar­ri­er for poten­tial asy­lum-seek­ers, mak­ing them fear report­ing crimes or even serv­ing as wit­ness­es. Trump’s crack­down would increase these kinds of fears, poten­tial­ly mak­ing the MS-13 even bold­er and more bru­tal as their vic­tims would be less like­ly to report attacks to law enforce­ment out of fear of being crim­i­nal­ized, detained or deported.

Pres­i­dent Trump said in his Long Island speech that it is the pol­i­cy of this admin­is­tra­tion to dis­man­tle, dec­i­mate and erad­i­cate MS-13… And they were all let in here over a rel­a­tive­ly short peri­od of time. Not dur­ing my peri­od of time, believe me. But we’re get­ting them out. They’re going to jails, and then they’re going back to their country.”

In fact, the MS-13 and Bar­rio-18 have their roots in 1980s Los Ange­les, where many Sal­vado­rans moved to flee vio­lence dur­ing their country’s civ­il war— fund­ed in part by the U.S. gov­ern­ment under Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan. As Luisel­li explains, these gangs were orig­i­nal­ly found­ed by sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Sal­vado­ran-Amer­i­cans to pro­tect them­selves from larg­er, long­stand­ing gangs in impov­er­ished areas of Los Angeles.

After the pas­sage of the Ille­gal Immi­gra­tion Reform and Immi­grant Respon­si­bil­i­ty Act (IIRIA) in 1996, mas­sive num­bers of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans were deport­ed. Fac­ing severe inequal­i­ty, lack of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and weak gov­ern­ments in their home coun­tries, these deport­ed gang mem­bers deep­ened their foothold in the north­ern tri­an­gle coun­tries of Cen­tral Amer­i­ca — El Sal­vador, Guatemala and Hon­duras — while increas­ing their bru­tal­i­ty. The poli­cies back­fired,” Luisel­li writes. Gang depor­ta­tions became more of a metas­ta­sis than an ear­ly eradication.”

The gov­ern­ments of El Sal­vador and Hon­duras respond­ed much in the same way Trump now pro­pos­es: tak­ing the gangs down. Sub­se­quent right-wing gov­ern­ments in these coun­tries advo­cat­ed a strat­e­gy of mano dura (hard-fist­ed­ness), result­ing in mass arrests, repres­sion and mass incar­cer­a­tion. Rather than solv­ing the gang prob­lem, these poli­cies have embold­ened and con­tributed to the grow­ing ranks and increas­ing bru­tal­i­ty of gang mem­bers, com­pelling the cur­rent migra­to­ry exodus.

Luisel­li explains the transna­tion­al char­ac­ter of this cri­sis: Until all the gov­ern­ments involved… at least- acknowl­edge their shared account­abil­i­ty in the roots and caus­es of the chil­dren’s exo­dus, solu­tions to the cri­sis will be impos­si­ble,” she writes.

Break­ing the cycle of violence

Trump’s vague, hard-fist­ed rhetoric isn’t just racist, his pro­pos­als would make mat­ters worse. For already mar­gin­al­ized youth grow­ing up in poor coun­tries, leav­ing can seem like the only option. Once they arrive, the jour­ney is far from over, and the U.S. legal sys­tem presents an uphill bat­tle. Absent any kind of sup­port net­work, join­ing a gang can seem like the only route to pro­tec­tion, espe­cial­ly in a place like Hemp­stead High School.

Trump’s Long Island speech used gang vio­lence by Cen­tral Amer­i­cans as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his administration’s anti-immi­grant poli­cies. He advo­cat­ed mil­i­tary force and pre­sump­tion of guilt before inno­cence, while dehu­man­iz­ing immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and encour­ag­ing police bru­tal­i­ty. By using his plat­form to jus­ti­fy this type of response, he fur­ther engrains the modus operan­di of repres­sion and vio­lence as the only approach to solv­ing con­flict. These mes­sages spread false­hoods and deep­en inse­cu­ri­ties, while seem­ing­ly jus­ti­fy­ing vio­lent respons­es that would do noth­ing to pro­tect those who need it most.

It is in line with these kinds of mes­sages that the Trump admin­is­tra­tions plans to halve the num­ber of refugees the Unit­ed States will accept into the coun­try over the next year — while the UN Refugee Agency says that needs for refugee reset­tle­ment have nev­er been greater.

Speak­ing at an event at Jud­son Church in New York last month, Luisel­li said the extreme vio­lence of lan­guage” the media uses to describe immi­grants has nor­mal­ized their dehu­man­iza­tion. She wrote her book in the hope that it would help reshape the lan­guage and men­tal­i­ty around immigration.

If Tell Me How It Ends teach­es us any­thing, it’s that vio­lence only begets more vio­lence, and that as it becomes increas­ing­ly engrained, this vio­lence — regard­less of bor­ders — becomes all the more dif­fi­cult to escape.

Lau­ra Weiss is Man­ag­ing Edi­tor at NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as. She has a Master’s degree in Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean Stud­ies from NYU.
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