Thedramatic surgeinthenumber of Central American children andteenagersentering theUShas created considerableconcern among manyin the United States.Alreadythis year,52,000childrenhave been apprehended.The latest estimates indicate that almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors overwhelmingly fromGuatemala, El Salvador,and Honduras will be picked-up by the US Border Patrol through this fiscal year ending in September 2014, almost double last years total.
For many of us who have conducted researchin Central America,thissurgeishardlysurprising.What is troubling, however, is that the debate over what the US should do with these children has centered on how to deport them as rapidly as possible.The naive notion is that deportation will send an unmistakable message not to attemptthedangerous journey north.
The first question we ought to be askingis:how do we aid these traumatized, troubled young people?Much ofthe intense, politicized outcry over these developments ignores thefact that,at its core,our immediate treatment of these migrantsis aserioushuman rights question and a critical humanitarian issue.The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees(UNHCR)estimates that 60 percent of the children who have fled to the US qualify for internationalsupport, including asylum, and thisestimatecould prove low.
As Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin put it, lets take care that we dont send them back into a deadly situation. Our decent treatment of these childrenreflects our core values as a nation and is simply the right thing to do.
The second question we should ask is:why are these children fleeingnow?These kids are crossing the borderto escapeescalating,uncontrollable violence;grindingpoverty;anda devastating, perhaps lethalfuture.In this maelstrom the United States is not adetached, innocent bystander.For decades,U.S. governmentssupportedunspeakablybrutal regimes and poured billionsinto maintainingthem($5 billion in El Salvadoralone).Implacable opposition tocommunismoften defined as virtually any reformergave these regimesa blank check.The result is a legacy of dealing with your opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity.Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional.
After the cold war ended,the United Stateslostinterest in thesecountries.What was left was destruction,tens ofthousandsdead,andmassive population displacement.The percentageofpeople living below the poverty line is 54percentforGuatemala, 36percentforElSalvador,and 60percentforHonduras.More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix.
In 2008, Iwas commissioned by theUNHCRto write a report on violence in Central America.The report concluded thatthe new gang-related violencecan be attributed to several factors including decades of internal wars and impunity, extensive displacement to urban areas, the absence of social and economic programs to integrate the youth, the migration to the United States,and the overall social exclusion of a largeproportion of the population.We should not make children pay the price fortheintolerablesocial destructionthat Central Americanelitesand militaries,as well assuccessive US governments,had a hand in creating.
Critics charge thatPresident Obamasimmigration policy is at fault today forproviding an illusionthatif children arrive here they will be allowed tostay.False rumors no doubt contribute to the flow but not significantly.These rumors serve multiple useful purposes, especially tothose wanting to maintain the status quo.In a recent UNHCR survey of 400 child migrants only a single child mentioned new US immigration policies as the reason he came.
A number of Republican Senators would like to repeal or at least drastically alter aPresident George W.Bush-eralaw that mandated stronger legal rights for child migrants from countries that dont share a physical border with the United States.Instead, critics propose treatingchildren fleeing the three Central American countries the way children coming from Mexico or Canada are treated:that is,making it far easier to deport them.
Whats wrong with this idea?As a start, Honduras is very different from Mexico let alone Canada.Weshould remember that in the 1960s,when there was concern over persecution in Cuba,the US encouraged and organized the PeterPan program that brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. In 1980, over125,000 Cubans fled that country for the US in a matter of months.Hundredsof small boats from Florida wentto the Cuban port ofMarielto pick up thosewishingtoflee.The US Coast Guard helped insure a safe journey.
What happened to the Peter Panand Marielimmigrants?They were integrated into existing communities and reunited with family members, the goal of all immigrants. Central Americans are not only contributing to the US economy today but sent $13 billion in remittances to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2013.
The most critical question is:what should the US do now?There are clearly no easy or quick answers,butwe need a far more realistic focus.Increasing the border patrol is not going to solve the problem;spending billions on drug interdictionin Central Americawill not solve the problem. As a start, we need to do two things: first,insure that the rights of the children fleeing to this country are fully respected and that they are treated humanely.This approach would be in the finest traditions of the US and live up to the values we prize.
Second,along-termCentral American-style MarshallPlan is essentialtoaddressthe structural,economic,and social problemsthese countries face.And, even then, we must realize that it will take decadesto insure strong, sustainable development.Only when young people see afuture for themselves in their home countries will the migrations be heldin check.Ironically, while this program would involve considerable resources,it could prove by far the most cost-effective approach.
And, in the meantime, we would honor the inspiring words that grace the Statue of Liberty.