amnesia coupled with unbelievable cruelty has struck hard in the U.S., but we need to recover quickly and act with integrity. The United States has a moral and historical obligation to do right by the thousands of unaccompanied children and thousands more mothers with their children arriving at the U.S. border. We must start by treating them as the asylum-seekers they are.
I recently spoke with women and children in migrant shelters in Mexico along the train tracks where Central Americans travel on freight trains and hope to seek asylum in the United States. Later, I met with families in McAllen, Texas, at a community center that offers emergency humanitarian assistance to Central American mothers and their children who have been processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The families are released to stay with relatives in the United States while they await immigration hearings. The center offers water, a hot meal, clean clothes, a shower and medical care, but most of all, compassion and dignity.
A 16-year-old from Honduras described his efforts to evade the gang members who insisted on recruiting him. But finally they told him that if they saw him in the country again, they would kill him. He has cousins who were murdered, so he fled with his family's reluctant blessing. When I met him in July in southern Mexico, he still had weeks of dangerous travel on the tops of freight trains in order to reach the U.S. border, get into the country and convince immigration to let him stay at least long enough for a court hearing.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.
A 15-year-old student from rural El Salvador could not leave her house because gang members waited outside her door making lewd comments and sexual threats. Girls from her community have been kidnapped, raped, sold into prostitution and murdered. Complaints to authorities resulted in retaliation.
Her mother quit her job and borrowed money to pay a coyote (a smuggler) to take them to the United States. They reached McAllen, Texas, and turned themselves in to immigration officials. They are requesting asylum. She hopes her daughter will be able to live and continue studying in the relative safety of the United States.
El Salvador has the fourth highest murder rate in the world.
The United States bears a significant responsibility for the intractable violence that forces families, children and adolescents to abandon their countries. Our history of interventions in Central America has helped create instability and poverty, while we supported and financed governments that opted for militarization and repression rather than viable opportunities for employment, education and social justice.
In 1954, the U.S. (through the CIA) orchestrated the overthrow of an elected president in Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, because he challenged the interests of U.S.-owned United Fruit Company by proposing a land redistribution program. This sparked social and political instability, sowing the seeds for a civil war that cost over 200,000 lives.
In the 1980s, the U.S. financed repressive militaries and governments in Central America that fomented civil wars and repression aimed at popular movements that attempted to stem the massive poverty and social inequalities in the countries. That led to thousands of deaths and vast emigration.
The drug war in the U.S. led to mass incarcerations, particularly of youth of color, including Central Americans who came to the U.S. fleeing those 1980s wars and repression. In prison, these youth were exposed to gang cultures flourishing there. When the Central America wars ended in the 1990s, thousands of those young people were deported to countries still highly unstable, and in which gang culture found fertile ground in the social, economic and political instability to which they were deported.
Later, the U.S. drug policies in Colombia pushed the drug trade deeper into Mexico and soon in Central America, where the cartels have established themselves. Of course, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine.
In 2006, the U.S. pushed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) onto the region. CAFTA destroyed Central American agriculture in favor of U.S. export-agriculture, and it supports U.S. corporate interests over the interests of the region's small- and medium-sized businesses. So, unemployment rose, public services were privatized or eliminated, and emigration increased.
In 2009, the U.S. supported the coup in Honduras which led to even more disintegration of the civil society and massive emigration.
Given the historical and current contexts, it is unconscionable to even consider sending children and families seeking asylum back to these countries. The women I spoke with in McAllen, Texas, came here to save their children's lives. How can we tell them that we won't allow them to do that?
President Obama speaks of returning children "safely." What does that mean? The same gangs still recruit and murder in the same neighborhoods. If they have a parent in their home country, that parent most likely does not have a job with a livable wage. Schools show escalating absenteeism and dropout rates because of gang activity in and around schools.
Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Kennedy's research shows that among Salvadoran youth deported back to the country, more than 60 percent left because of violence, and most say they will flee again. That means they will be back on the road under the same or even more dangerous circumstances.
Yes, many of the children arriving have parents here. Because U.S. policies gutted the economies in their countries, they came years ago to do low-wage work, which bolsters the U.S. economy, so they can send money back to keep their children fed and in school. Now they want their children with them and out of extreme danger. The question, "How can parents send their children on such a dangerous journey?" remains much too simplistic. What parent would not take the measures within their reach to have their children with them and to protect them from intolerable violence?
These parents cannot buy a plane ticket to the U.S. for their child, which would be an expense of $700 or so. Instead, they must pay 10 times that amount — or more — to a coyote to take their child on a dangerous, uncertain journey.
But, as parents have explained, if they allow a child threatened by gang warfare to stay, they face certain death by violence. If they allow him to attempt to travel through some of the most dangerous territory on Earth to reach the United States, they might not make it. But, the possibility exists that they will, and have a chance at a good life.
It's a horrendous dilemma for a parent, but not an impossible one to understand.
The solutions that U.S. politicians propose demonstrate naiveté, arrogance and an astounding willingness to deliberately endanger children's lives. The children are following the laws regarding asylum: They are showing up at the border without documents and stating that they fear returning to their countries and request asylum.
We have a reasonable law on the books, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that provides Central American children the right to tell their story about the violence from which they are fleeing, and have a full and fair hearing in court. The least we can do for children who did not create the horrors they have lived is not gut this law. Yet, some politicians want to blame the children by dismantling it.
We have the responsibility to repair as best we can the damage caused by past and current U.S. policies and provide children and their families the opportunity for a decent life.
Kathy Bougher is a Denver-area educator, social justice activist and freelance writer.