The following article was written by Eben Levey, who worked with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns from September 2013 through August 2014. It was published in the September-October 2014 NewsNotes.
In recent weeks, the "crisis" of undocumented minors migrating into the U.S. has been given prominent media coverage. The increase in the number of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has not only reinvigorated the debate over immigration reform, but it has also exposed the inadequacies and often inhumane conditions that migrant detainees are kept. However, the story that is often missing from the news is the violence, instability, and a lack of opportunities that are driving migration from Central America into the United States.
Responding to the inadequacies of detention facilities, President Obama has proposed a massive increase in funding to better house detained migrant children. Without examining the conditions that these minors are fleeing, the proposed funding increase does very little to reunite children with family already living in the U.S., and it entirely avoids the fact that the majority of these children ought to be considered refugees rather than "illegal aliens." By U.S. law, persons fleeing violence, likely torture, death, or persecution due to being a member of a definable at-risk group should qualify as refugees with the protections and services that entails. A recent report published by the Immigration Policy Center overwhelming points to violence as the reason for migration - leaving a situation of near certain death, sexual abuse, or physical violence for a journey through Mexico that is harrowing and fraught with risks.
The IPC’s report also documents the trends in child migration. According to their findings, of the nearly 60,000 child migrants that crossed the U.S. Southwest border between October 1, 2013 and June 15, 2014, 29 percent were traveling from Honduras, 24 percent from Guatemala, 23 percent from El Salvador, and 22 percent from Mexico. It is no accident that Honduras, with the highest murder rate in the world and the greatest degree of political instability and corruption in the region, is the nation of origin for the highest number of child migrants. (See related article here.)
In a meeting in Washington, D.C., the director of Casa Alianza, a Honduran youth services NGO, spoke about the cases that his agency deals with daily. He said that the murder rate for young men between the ages of 16-20 is far higher than the murder rate of the country. Not only are young men faced with threats if they refuse to join gangs, the state authorities have begun to treat all youth as a criminal element, thus increasing the danger for anyone brave enough to remain at home in gang controlled territory.
Contrary to what many believe, it is not a misunderstood interpretation of U.S. immigration rules [such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum] that drives this migration flow; motivating factors are violence and lack of opportunity in home communities, and the need to remove oneself from a dangerous situation. Furthermore, the IPC study found that child migrants are going to destinations where family members or family friends already live. Thus, if family members live in Costa Rica, it is far more likely that the unaccompanied minors go to Costa Rica than to the U.S.
The stories of migrant children have reinforced the notion that compassion and peace building are desperately needed within all of our communities. For those of us committed to God’s work and to protecting God’s creation, we must not forget our calling to side with those who are marginalized and impoverished. The current focus then ought not be on the "crisis" of child migration as seen from the U.S., but rather on the conditions in home communities, the dangerous journey that migrants must make through drug cartel controlled territories, and the role that U.S. policy plays in fomenting violence and instability. Only by changing the conversation to focus on how to build peace and a more just global economy will we achieve substantive change for the benefit of those who are fleeing and searching for a better life.
Photo by Rick Reinhard.