Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Central American Children on the US Border Deserve More

By Rosemary Joyce

The first plane has landed in Honduras, carrying women and children deported from the US earlier this week. Press coverage notes that "U.S. officials said there would be many more."

The L.A. Times report goes on to note that "More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have sought permission to remain" in the US. And an editorial in the New York Times earlier this week gives an incredible projection: 90,000 children are expected to cross the southern border this year without documents, many on their own.

One quarter of those children, the Times says, are from Honduras.

From 1977 until 2009, I conducted research in Honduras virtually every year; as part of my doctoral dissertation, I lived for 30 months in Honduras over a five year period.

So when I see media reports of angry mobs turning away these children from places where the Border Service wants to start processes required by US law, or read reports of claims these children will spread diseases -- even the Ebola virus, which is not typical of the region -- I do not picture a faceless horde.

I see the faces of children I have known, whose families are desperate enough to raise what one news report says can be as much as $3,000 --  almost a year's income for a Honduran lucky enough to have a full time job -- to send a child to the U.S. in the hope that he or she will not become a victim of violence.

The Honduran Committee for the Protection of Human Rights is quoted as estimating that "80% of the people emigrating from Honduras are fleeing some sort of criminality or violence, such as extortion threats from gangs or drug traffickers."

Central American children cannot be immediately sent back to their countries of origin due to U.S. law passed in 2008, during the Bush administration:

the Border Patrol is required to take child migrants who aren't from Mexico into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement... either finding a suitable relative to whom the child can be released, or putting the child in long-term foster care.

The wave of children emigrating from Central America started three years ago, in 2011; it cannot be blamed on more recent events. Its causes must be sought in conditions in the countries from which children are fleeing. They are not coming just to the US; they are also entering more stable countries in Central America, asking for asylum.

The violence these children are fleeing is worse than in war zones-- one reporter makes a comparison of the situation in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in 2012 to Iraq: "all three Central American countries were, statistically speaking, twice as dangerous for civilians (in 2012) as Iraq was."

The roots of that violence lie in U.S. policies: initially, in the deportations of the 1990s that exported gang cultures from the U.S. to Central America; more recently, in U.S. anti-drug efforts that actually increase violence among drug cartels that have moved into Central America, especially Honduras; and weak response to the 2009 coup in Honduras, a disruption of governmental institutions that created greater opportunities for corruption of the police and deepened government incapacity to provide safety for its people.

It is estimated that about half of the children entering the U.S. alone likely qualify for asylum -- a legal status that would allow them to stay in the US.

Over a third of these children have a parent already in the U.S.

The Texas Observer has debunked fear mongering about immigrant children spreading diseases:

The vast majority of Central Americans are vaccinated against all these diseases. Governments concerned about health, and good parents investing in their kids, have made Central American kids better-vaccinated than Texan kids....UNICEF reports that 93 percent of kids in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles. That’s better than American kids (92 percent).

These are scared, desperate, children, with rights under U.S. law to have their reasons for traveling here heard.

In a statement signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, these church leaders "reiterate the urgency of respecting the human dignity" of the current child migrants. They support the call by one of their number, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, asking the US House of Representatives to declare this situation a humanitarian crisis.

A humanitarian crisis.

Or, as Sonia Nazario said, writing in the New York Times, a refugee crisis -- the term also used by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in a report on the migration of unaccompanied Central American children.

These refugees are children. They deserve support. Not hatred, and not a hasty return to a country where they face horrors and risk death.

As my colleague Beatriz Manz argues, the U.S. should "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."